Why Indiana University won ruling against 8 students and why its vaccine mandate is unique

Will the decision affect outcomes in other states?
By: | July 20, 2021
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS/FRED ZWICKY

Earlier this week, a federal judge struck down a lawsuit brought by eight students and ruled in favor of Indiana University in its mandate of COVID vaccinations for students this fall.

Students had filed an injunction, saying the vaccine requirement violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights, including informed decisions on medical treatments. But Judge Damon Leichty denied the claim, writing in a 100-page opinion that the university could implement a mandatory vaccine program in the interest of the safety and health of its community and that it didn’t infringe on students’ rights.

“The university isn’t forcing the students to undergo injections,” Leichty wrote. “The students aren’t being forced to take the vaccination against their will; they can go to college elsewhere or forego college altogether. If this case were merely that, merely the right to attend university, this state action wouldn’t trample on their rights. There is no fundamental or constitutional right to a college education, much less one at a particular institution.”

So students must continue to comply with the mandate and get vaccinated by Aug. 15 or sooner if they are arriving to campus after Aug. 1. That is, unless an appeals process from the students sways the judge to reconsider. “We plan on asking the judge to put a hold on IU’s mandate pending that appeal,” their attorney, James Bopp Jr., said. “An admitted IU student’s right to attend IU cannot be conditioned on the student waiving their rights to bodily integrity, bodily autonomy, and consent to medical treatment like IU has done here. IU’s mandate did not properly balance the risks of the COVID vaccine to college-age students against the risks of COVID itself to that population and that college-aged students have a very low risk of adverse effects from a COVID infection. We are confident the court of appeals will agree that the mandate should be put on hold.”

Indiana University’s response to the court victory was brief but positive.

“We appreciate the quick and thorough ruling which allows us to focus on a full and safe return,” university spokesman Chuck Carney said in a statement. “We look forward to welcoming everyone to our campuses for the fall semester.”

Why this decision matters

Public university systems across the country have been split on mandates, implementing decisions based on expert health guidance, Centers for Disease Control recommendations, their own experiences in handling COVID cases during the past year and their states’ view of vaccine requirements.

In more liberal states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, there has been a leaning to require vaccines without pushback, while in others such as Idaho and Montana, there has been less acceptance. But even in states that are “blue”, such as New York, some universities are taking a guarded approach and waiting for full approval of vaccines by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The three vaccines, which are still under emergency use authorization, have been targeted to get full approval in January 2022. That could make decisions on mandates and other safety protocols such as making a challenge with only a month or so until the start of the academic year.

Indiana University’s situation is unique. Though vaccine passports have been banned in the state, it is not a full ban that includes public institutions such as in the state of Florida. It only bars state and local government agencies from requiring them. So Indiana University effectively can implement a mandate since it does not violate state law. Still, the university is not requiring proof of vaccination for the fall, just that students get it done.

Several other institutions in Indiana have implemented vaccine requirements, including private institutions including the University of Notre Dame, Butler University and Valparaiso University. One notable exception is Purdue University. In an interview on Monday with MSNBC, President Mitch Daniels said Purdue will not require COVID-19 vaccines in the fall, citing both the difficulties of ensuring populations have received them as well as the vaccines’ EUA status. Daniels said 60% of students had volunteered that they have been vaccinated.