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Appeals Court Rejects Bid to Block Indiana University Vaccine Policy

Higher Education Higher Education

Like many higher education institutions, Indiana University will require all students, faculty, and staff to get a COVID-19 vaccine before returning to campus this fall, subject to certain exemptions. Eight students who oppose the policy filed suit against the university in federal court, arguing that the vaccine mandate violated their rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. On July 18, 2021, the district court denied the students’ request for a preliminary injunction blocking the policy from taking effect. The students appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the Court of Appeals to issue an injunction pending appeal.

On August 2, 2021, the three-judge panel assigned to the case denied that request. Klassen v. Trustees of Indiana University, No. 21-2326. The court found that the University’s policy cannot be unconstitutional since the U.S. Supreme Court held in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), that a state may require all members of the public to be vaccinated against smallpox. The court observed that IU case was “easier than Jacobson for the University for two reasons.” First, the statewide vaccine mandate in Jacobson did not allow for exceptions. IU’s policy, in contrast, provides exemptions for religious and medical reasons. Six of the eight students challenging the vaccine mandate had claimed exemptions, and the seventh was eligible. Those plaintiffs were required to wear masks and be tested, requirements that the court said were “not constitutionally problematic.” Indeed, the only reason that the court found there to be a justiciable controversy – a requirement for a federal lawsuit – was that the eighth plaintiff was not eligible for an exemption. Additionally, Indiana did not require every adult member of the public to be vaccinated, as in Jacobson. “People who do not want to be vaccinated may go elsewhere. Many universities require vaccination against SARS-CoV-2, but many others do not. Plaintiffs have ample educational opportunities.”

The court affirmed the right of universities to make health and safety decisions. “Each university may decide what is necessary to keep other students safe in a congregate setting.” The court noted that universities commonly impose health requirements, including vaccinations against other diseases and health exams. “Vaccination protects not only the vaccinated persons but also those who come in contact with them, and at a university close contact is inevitable.”

The court acknowledged the students’ right to bodily integrity. However, it reasoned that people often accept limitations on certain rights to obtain the benefits of higher education. Students have property rights, but “[u]ndergraduates must part with at least $11,000 a year (in-state tuition), even though Indiana could not summarily confiscate that sum from all residents of college age.” The First Amendment precludes the state from telling anyone what to read and write, but university students must read and write what a professor assigns. “A student told to analyze the role of nihilism in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed but who submits an essay about Iago’s motivations in Othello will flunk.” “If conditions of higher education may include surrendering property and following instructions about what to read and write, it is hard to see a greater problem with medical conditions that help all students remain safe while learning. A university will have trouble operating when each student fears that everyone else may be spreading disease.”

The court’s opinion only addresses the students’ motion for an injunction pending appeal and does not amount to a judgment on the merits of their claim. However, the ruling leaves little doubt as to the likely outcome in the court of appeals. The plaintiffs have vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court. For now, the court’s affirmation of Indiana University’s policies lends strong support to other public educational institutions seeking to protect their students, faculty, and staff using vaccine mandates and other health measures.