Federal Court Upholds Campus Vaccine Mandate...with Caveats

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July 23, 2021
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In what appears to be the first decision issued by a U.S. court on the constitutionality of a university COVID-19 vaccine mandate, the District Court for Northern Indiana has upheld the policy. While helpful for university administrators who have grappled through the summer with the question of whether they may impose vaccine mandates, the decision has left certain questions still unresolved.
In Klaassen v. Indiana University, a group of eight plaintiffs brought a suit challenging the university’s vaccine mandate. The recent decision in the matter does not represent a final disposition of the case, but responds to a motion seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the implementation of the mandate.
In denying the requested injunction, the judge acknowledged that students may experience genuine material deprivations because of the vaccine policy, but further reasoned that “[t]he Constitution and longstanding precedent should endure.” In the matter, the plaintiffs argued that the mandate constituted an infringement of their Fourteenth Amendment right to “liberty,” and in support of their claims highlighted court precedent protecting the ability of individuals to refuse medical treatment.
The court distinguished the cases cited by the student plaintiffs, noting that they related to individual choices “with no ramifications to the physical health of others.” The court additionally recognized that the university has significant interests at stake, as well, describing the concerns of the institution in “promoting the health of its campus communities” as “legitimate.”
Despite this ruling in favor of Indiana University, it comes with certain caveats. These include the following:
  • As the court acknowledged, this decision was based upon a limited evidentiary review and “not every stone has been unturned by the parties.” Specifically, additional data regarding vaccine safety may tilt the balance relative to this issue.
  • The facts that the university provided exemptions for religious beliefs and medical conditions from the vaccine requirement and that the mandate was confined to a single semester were critical factors in this decision.
  • Finally, the court reasoned that the university had not acted in a manner that was either unreasonable or disconnected from its legitimate interests in promoting public health. As the court cautioned, it has not held that the university “may do whatever it wants to address COVID-19.” Thus, a close evaluation of the reasonableness of any policy language is critical.
The landscape surrounding vaccine mandates and other public health-related campus restrictions continue to evolve. If your institution is seeking to create appropriate policies regarding student safety or other matters, contact the Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team for support.