In 1997, the state of New York made it illegal to hold a mixed martial arts (MMA) contest before a paying audience. Now Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), America’s largest promoter of MMA events, is taking the fight to federal court, arguing that the law violates the right to free expression protected by the First Amendment.
In November, New York University law professor Barry Friedman filed suit on the UFC’s behalf in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, arguing that the state’s MMA ban “limits the liberty of those who would, but for the ban, attend live professional MMA events, as well as those who train in MMA and want to exhibit their skills as professionals before a live crowd.”
UFC events are “both sport and theater,” the lawsuit argues, pointing to the fighters’ outfits, entrance music, and other expressive flourishes. “Fans come not just for the fights,” the brief says, “but also for this entire unified show.”
Although the courts have not previously recognized a First Amendment right to perform professional sports, Friedman remains confident. “This is mixed martial arts,” he told The New York Observer, “emphasis on the arts.”