By JULIE CARR SMYTH
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) â¿¿ Ohio stopped enforcing regulations against precious metals dealers on Thursday under orders from a federal judge, prompting the state commerce director to urge caution among consumers buying or selling gold and silver.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Watson in Columbus ruled late Wednesday that an Ohio law aimed at curbing gold- and silver-related crime by barring precious metals dealers from advertising without a license is unconstitutional. He ordered the Ohio Department of Commerce to stop enforcing the Precious Metals Dealers Act in place since 1996.
The disputed law set a new framework for regulating gold, silver and precious metals dealers, including coin dealers â¿¿ a sector that's been regulated in Ohio since 1921.
Watson said advertising for a business classifies as speech protected by the First Amendment â¿¿ and the state failed to prove that the license requirement was effective in curbing theft, fraud and terrorism as intended.
"Defendants argue the regulation of precious metals dealer activity is in the public interest. That may be," Watson wrote. "It is not in the public interest, however, to have an Act that unconstitutionally burdens only those who engage in commercial speech."
About 300 precious metals dealers are licensed in Ohio.
The libertarian-leaning 1851 Center for Constitutional Law brought the suit on behalf of Liberty Coins, of Delaware â¿¿ which was unlicensed. The state had threatened to shutter the business for failing to pay significant fines or obtain a license to advertise.
"We are just trying to make it safe for small businesses to operate in Ohio â¿¿ a mission that we wish our state government would share, rather than thwart," Executive Director Maurice Thompson said. "This act and those enforcing it treat small businesses who make gold and silver available as public utilities at best, and criminals at worst, irrespective of whether they have done harm."