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Indiana University students sue over COVID-19 vaccine requirement

Indiana University students sue over COVID-19 vaccine requirement


Indiana is expanding eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine to those Hoosiers 30 or older, and on March 31, it will drop to age 16. Here’s how that works. Wochit

A group of Indiana University students are suing over the school’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement. 

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday, eight students allege that the requirement that students, staff and faculty be vaccinated against the virus before returning to campus in the fall violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which includes rights of personal autonomy and bodily integrity and the right to reject medical treatment, and Indiana’s recently passed “vaccine passport” law. 

The students say IU’s mandate is more than that. In the complaint, the students say they feel they’re being coerced into vaccination under “the threat of virtual expulsion from school.”

IU’s vaccine requirement came from recommendations put forth by the university’s “restart committee,” charged by IU President Michael McRobbie with getting campuses back to pre-pandemic operations. But the mandate has been embroiled in controversy since it was announced last month. State officials have called on the university to rescind the mandate; others have asked Gov. Eric Holcomb to block it. Attorney General Todd Rokita issued a public opinion that it violated state law.

COVID on campus: Why Indiana University decided to require vaccinations

The “vaccine passport” language was added to state law in the waning hours of the most recent legislative session. It prohibits the state or local units of government from mandating proof of vaccination as a condition for receiving services or employment. While lawmakers, at the time, said they did not see the law applying to schools, Rokita said it did extend to public institutions, including IU.

Responding to public pressure and Rokita’s opinion, university officials said earlier this month that the requirement would stand but documentation to prove vaccination status would no longer be required. Individuals simply have to certify their status through an online form. 

The university said this change in policy puts it within the bounds of state law.

“The university is confident it will prevail in this case,” said university spokesman Chuck Carney. “Following release of the Indiana attorney general’s opinion, our process was revised, with uploading proof of vaccination no longer required. The attorney general’s opinion affirmed our right to require the vaccine.”

‘Extra requirements’

In their lawsuit, the students say that they object to the university’s mandate while the vaccines are being offered under emergency use authorization. Their complaint says that it violates medical ethics by coercing individuals into getting a vaccine whose long-term safety is still unknown and for an illness that poses little threat to young adults.

“The known and unknown risks associated with COVID vaccines, particularly in those under 30, outweigh the risks to that population from the disease itself,” the complaint states.

It goes so far as to liken “forced vaccinations” to the Tuskegee Study, in which the U.S. Public Health Service experimented on Black men infected with syphilis, intentionally withheld widely available treatments, like penicillin, from them and failed to get their informed consent to participate in the study. 

“Of course, the historical example of the Tuskegee Study differs from IU’s Mandate because IU has no intent to risk harm to its students and they are not conducting a ‘study,'” the complaint reads. “And Plaintiffs do not claim otherwise. However, IU’s Mandate does not provide for voluntary and informed consent to the taking of the vaccine, a fundamental tenet of medical ethics, which the Tuskegee Institute also failed.”

While several of the students have applied for, and been granted, exemptions based on their religious beliefs, the complaint says they also object to extra requirements put on students who receive exemptions, such as required mask wearing in public spaces and twice-weekly COVID-19 mitigation testing. 

The students involved in the lawsuit range from incoming freshmen to graduate students. They are:

  • Ryan Klaassen, an incoming sophomore at IU
  • Jaime Carini, a student pursuing a Doctor of Music in organ performance and literature and a Ph.D. in musicology
  • D.J.B., an incoming freshman at IU
  • Ashlee Morris, an incoming first-year law student at the McKinney School of Law
  • Seth Crowder, an MBA student at the Kelley School of Business
  • Macey Policka, a senior at IU
  • Margaret Roth, an incoming freshman at IU
  • Natalie Sperazza, an incoming sophomore at IU

“IU’s Mandate does not take into account that virtually everyone on IU’s campus, whether professors, staff, or students, can take the vaccine to protect themselves, and wear masks and social distance, if they want to,” said James Bopp Jr., attorney representing the students, in a press release. “Thus, IU allows for one and only one option for IU students who do not qualify for its limited exemptions —take the vaccine or be virtually expelled from IU. This kind of total disregard for student freedom to choose for themselves, for student’s bodily autonomy, and for the need for voluntary and informed consent cannot stand under the U.S. Constitution.”

Even as it backed away from requiring proof of vaccination, the university has stood by the mandate. 

“The requirement for all Indiana University students, faculty and staff to be fully vaccinated before the return to school in August remains in place,” said a university spokesperson Monday. “As part of IU’s response to the ongoing pandemic, the vaccine mandate is helping to support a return to safe and more normal operations this fall.”

Masks will be optional for students, faculty and staff who are fully vaccinated. Classrooms, labs, housing, dining, recreation and other campus facilities will return to pre-pandemic capacities, the university said, with no physical distancing required. Classes will be held in person in typical classroom settings and vaccinated individuals will also be exempt from the frequent mitigation testing that marked the past school year.

The university will continue to conduct surveillance testing to monitor for outbreaks and vaccinated individuals will be asked to participate in that program but the testing will be at “much lower levels.” 

Several other colleges around the state — including the University of Notre Dame and Butler University — are also requiring the vaccine for individuals returning to campus in the fall but are not facing the same backlash because they are private institutions. 

Call IndyStar education reporter Arika Herron at 317-201-5620 or email her at Follow her on Twitter: @ArikaHerron.

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Published at Mon, 21 Jun 2021 19:44:35 +0000