Indiana University students sue over Covid vaccine rule

Institution confident of legal victory, but political costs loom in conservative state

June 23, 2021
Vaccine annd syringe
Source: iStock

Eight Indiana University students are suing the institution over its Covid vaccination requirement even as the institution agreed under political pressure to accept exemptions and verbal affirmations of compliance.

The students – ranging from incoming freshmen to a doctoral candidate – contend in the federal lawsuit that getting vaccinated is unwise at their age and that a mandate for it violates their constitutional rights.

The “unknown risks associated with Covid vaccines, particularly in those under 30, outweigh the risks to that population from the disease itself”, the plaintiffs argued in their complaint.

Such medical contentions are disputed by federal health authorities and given little weight by legal experts.

Yet the position of the students, and the support it enjoys in a conservative-leaning state such as Indiana, suggest real political risks for US higher education, with more than 500 institutions nationwide having already announced vaccination mandates for students or employees.

That danger for Indiana University was reinforced by a letter from 35 Republican members of the state’s Senate, to the university’s president, Michael McRobbie, opposing its vaccine mandate and suggesting a cut in state funding if he does not relent.

In a bid to head off such trouble, Indiana University has already joined Purdue University, also located in Indiana, in agreeing that they would not technically require students to produce written proof of their immunisation.

That put Indiana University in what it regards as compliance with a non-binding opinion by the state’s Republican attorney general, Todd Rokita, who said its initial vaccine requirement posed a “clear violation” of state law.

Even without that concession, the students suing the university and their conservative backers appear to have an uphill battle. The US Supreme Court has consistently upheld other types of vaccination mandates in the past, and a federal court this month upheld a Covid vaccine requirement for employees at a Houston hospital system, leading to 150 firings and resignations.

“The university is confident it will prevail in this case,” said an Indiana University spokesman. The vaccine requirement for all students, faculty and staff “is helping to support a return to safe and more normal operations” this autumn, he said.

And while the university will allow exemptions for medical and religious reasons, and has retreated from the demand for written proof, any student “who has been found to have been untruthful on an attestation of vaccination could be subject to disciplinary action from the university”, he said.

The nation’s response to vaccinations, as with the overall Covid pandemic, has reflected the Republican tendency modelled by former president Donald Trump to downplay the seriousness of the virus and to resist protective measures.

That dynamic applies to Indiana, where both the House of Representatives and the Senate have large Republican majorities, and where only 40 per cent of residents statewide are fully vaccinated, compared with the nationwide average of 45 per cent.

Earlier in the pandemic, US colleges and universities faced more than 300 lawsuits from students and parents arguing that they were due tuition fee refunds to compensate for what they regarded as lower-quality online instruction. Experts expected the institutions to largely prevail in them, and many of the cases already have been dismissed.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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