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Zuffa has taken an enormous step, filing a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court, saying the prohibition against UFC and Mixed Martial Arts in general in the State of New York is unconstitutional. The complaint accuses the state of enacting the ban because of the violent message it believes the sport conveys.
According to the lawsuit, Zuffa/UFC is alleging the State of New York has violated its free speech rights protected by the First Amendment. The real intent of the ban, the organization alleged, is to “squelch its expressive element.”
The lawsuit adds, “Live professional (Mixed Martial Arts) is clearly intended and understood as public entertainment and, as such, is expressive activity protected by the First Amendment.”
The 107-page document extols the theatrical content of live Mixed Martial Arts events, the respect fighters have for one another and the rigorous training they undergo. It also rejects violence as the sport’s essential message.
“While there surely are spectators who watch solely because of their misconceived hopes of seeing ‘violence,’ ” the suit says, “countless fans watch (Mixed Martial Arts) because of the variety of positive messages conveyed.”
“The sport was a victim of its own early hype,” said Barry Friedman, a lawyer retained by UFC and a noted law professor at New York University. “But the UFC NOW is not the UFC THEN and (Mixed Martial Arts) NOW is not (Mixed Martial Arts) THEN." now is not M.M.A. then.”
A bill to overturn the New York ban passed the State Senate in June but did not reach a vote in the Assembly. Friedman said Zuffa/UFC “tried for a long time to do this through the democratic process.”
Friedman continued, “Despite indications that a bill would pass the Assembly, it didn’t, and we had no recourse but to sue.”
The organization is suing New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr, who would impose criminal penalties on those who violate the ban in the State of New York.
The plaintiffs include not only UFC's majority owners Zuffa LLC, but also fighters, fans, trainers and one man who used what he learned while watching Mixed Martial Arts fights to subdue a knife-wielding attacker. The strategy was to show the broad support that the UFC has, according to Lawrence Epstein, its general counsel.
“I can’t tell you how many of these plaintiffs said they wanted to be part of history,” Friedman said.
According to an article posted tonight in The New York Times, UFC's constitutional argument is critical to the case, two First Amendment lawyers said.
Each cited a 7-to-2 decision in June by the Supreme Court that struck down on First Amendment grounds a California law that banned the sale of violent video games to children.
“The linchpin is convincing the court that the ban is aimed at the content of the entertainment as opposed to the safety of the fighters,” said Tom Kelley, a partner at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz. “Attempts to regulate entertainment based on its violent message have been largely unsuccessful.”
Bruce Johnson, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, added: “It sounds very straightforward: the government seems to be trying to regulate the message, which is very different from trying to regulate what’s healthy or unhealthy about the sport. Entertainment itself is protected by the First Amendment.”
The lawsuit also says that while New York bans live professional fights, it allows mixed martial arts gyms, amateur fights and the component disciplines of Mixed Martial Arts, like judo, tae kwon do, karate and kenpo.
“If (Mixed Martial Arts) is so dangerous,” the filing said, “then certainly the ban could have been drafted so as to prohibit all (Mixed Martial Arts) activities.”
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