The Volokh Conspiracy

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Court Refuses to Block Indiana University's Student Vaccination Requirement


Yesterday, Judge Damon R. Leichty (N.D. Ind.) denied a preliminary injunction against the requirement, in Klaassen v. Trustees of Indiana Univ.:

Under guiding principles of federalism, our Constitution preserves the power of the States, within constitutional limits, to adopt laws to provide for public health and safety. Twice the United States Supreme Court has upheld state authority to compel reasonable  vaccinations. [The court is referring here to Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) and Zucht v. King (1922). -EV] The States don't have arbitrary power, but they have discretion to act reasonably in protecting the public's health.

Students at Indiana University have a significant liberty protected by the Constitution—refusing unwanted medical treatment based on bodily autonomy. The Fourteenth Amendment says no state may "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. Const. amend. XIV § 1. Given this due process protection of liberty, longstanding constitutional law prevents a public university—an arm of the State—from mandating a vaccine for its students unless it has rationally pursued a legitimate interest in public health for its campus community.

This case presents that question: whether Indiana University has acted constitutionally in mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for its students, as announced on May 21, 2021. Albeit, and this should not be overlooked, this case does so only in the context of a preliminary injunction motion, not for a final decision on the merits.

Indiana University's policy has real implications. Students may be deprived of attending the university without being vaccinated or qualifying for an exemption. Still they have real options—taking the vaccine, applying for a religious exemption, applying for a medical exemption, applying for a medical deferral, taking a semester off, or attending another university or online. The policy applies for the fall 2021 semester only.

Eight students sued Indiana University because of its vaccination mandate and because of the extra requirements of masking, testing, and social distancing that apply to those who receive an exemption. They ask the court to enter a preliminary injunction—an extraordinary remedy that requires a strong showing that they will likely succeed on the merits of their claims, that they will sustain irreparable harm, and that the balance of harms and the public interest favor such a remedy.

The court now denies their motion. The Constitution and longstanding precedent should endure. Recognizing the students' significant liberty to refuse unwanted medical treatment, the Fourteenth Amendment permits Indiana University to pursue a reasonable and due process of vaccination in the legitimate interest of public health for its students, faculty, and staff. Today, on this preliminary record, the university has done so for its campus communities. The students haven't established a likelihood of success on the merits of their Fourteenth Amendment claim or the many requirements that must precede the extraordinary remedy of a preliminary injunction.