Commissioners approve designating Health Department as a non-public forum

Published 12:05 am Tuesday, March 7, 2023

SALISBURY — At Monday’s meeting, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners approved a requested policy change that now designates the Rowan County Public Health Department as a non-public forum in a 4-0 vote. Commissioner Greg Edds was not in attendance.

Non-public forums are places such as schools, jails or military bases that are not open to public expression. The main reason for the requested policy change is “to protect the privacy rights of clients seeking health care and related services,” according to a memo sent to the commissioners from Alyssa Harris, the health department’s public health director. The Rowan County Board of Health unanimously approved the requested policy change at a meeting in February.

Harris also explained the policy change was to protect the department from potential “First Amendment auditors,” who are people that visit government buildings and film or take photographs of their interaction with government employees to ensure that the First Amendment right to record in public is preserved. Auditors say doing this promotes transparency and openness in government. But critics argue the audits are antagonistic and usually lead to a confrontation with government officials because auditors tend to not explain their activities.

“We felt that it was really important to protect our patients’ privacy to prevent that filming that may happen,” Harris said in a phone interview. “It’s more of to prevent that unnecessary, aggressive filming that would prevent somebody maybe from coming to get an STD test or feel uncomfortable for receiving their prenatal care here.”

The health department is still open for tours and for patients who need to use the services provided there. The Rowan County Department of Social Services also made this policy change in November.

“We’re more than happy to give people tours, just in an appropriate way that would protect the rights of people who are getting services,” Harris said.

There have been no reports of First Amendment auditors in Rowan County.