Updated: Aug 11, 2022
As the fall semester approaches for colleges across the country, an onslaught of litigation has materialized involving university vaccine mandates. Many colleges have implemented vaccination mandates for their students and faculty to return to campus starting in the fall. These policies have been met with legal challenges by unwilling students and faculty to receive the shot.
Indiana University was one of the institutions that decided to require a strict vaccination requirement for students and faculty on campus this fall. Medical and religious exemptions are available, but the Indiana University website has a selective list of criteria that will be considered for an exemption. Notably, natural immunity or previous infection from COVID-19 will not be considered as criteria for a medical exemption. Also, the school policy doesn’t mention a distinction between university athletes and the rest of the student body when it comes to adhering to the policy.
Eight students filed a complaint against Indiana University in the Northern District of Indiana seeking a preliminary injunction to thwart the university’s policy, citing various 14th Amendment violations, and claiming a right to refuse medical treatment. The complaint cites Roe v. Wade in stating that a governmental entity (or a public university) must meet a heightened standard of review when infringing with a right to bodily integrity. The students claim that with the available conflicting evidence about the effectiveness of the vaccine, this heightened standard is not met by the University to require vaccines.
On July 18, 2021 a federal judge denied the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction ruling that 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. On appeal, the 7th Circuit upheld. In a concise four page opinion, the 7th Circuit stated that following precedent allows Indiana University to require vaccination status. In 1905 the Supreme Court in a case named Jacobson v. Massachusetts, ruled that it was constitutional for cities to require citizens be vaccinated against smallpox.
On August 12, 2021, Justice Amy Coney Barret refused to grant the students request for emergency relief to strike down the University policy. She did not refer the application for emergency relief to the full court and she did not ask Indiana University for a response. The combination of those moves by Justice Barret tends to show that the application submitted by the students was not backed on solid legal grounds. Despite the case not yet being decided on the merits, at this point there has been no indication that students challenging vaccination mandates will prevail against universities.
Presumably, as Indiana University student athletes return to the campus for the fall semester, they will have to abide by the vaccination policy. The NCAA hasn’t released vaccination requirements and only has released recommendations on testing, quarantine, and isolation differentiating between vaccinated and non-vaccinated athletes. Across the country, athletes’ vaccination requirements will depend on the school and conference they play in. For example, the University of Hawaii has announced they will require the vaccine for all their student athletes to compete for the upcoming school year.
With the recent NIL landscape giving collegiate athletes more of an opportunity to use their voice and social media platforms to express an opinion, athletes who are against vaccination mandates may choose to make their stance known to their followers. But athletes likely face a similar unsuccessful fate to challenging university vaccine policies as the rest of their fellow classmates.
Matthew Netti is a 2021 graduate from Northeastern University School of Law. He currently works as an attorney fellow at the Office of the General Counsel for Northeastern University. You can follow him on twitter @MattNettiMN.
 Indiana University, COVID-19 Vaccine, https://www.iu.edu/covid/prevention/covid-19-vaccine.html (last visited Aug. 11, 2021).  Complaint Klassen v. Trustees of Indiana University, No. 1:21-cv-238 (N.D. Ind. 2021).  Klassen v. Trustees of Indiana, No. 1:21-cv-238 DRL (N.D. Ind. 2021).  Klassen v. Trustees of Indiana University, No. 21-2326 (7th Cir. 2021).  Id. at 2.  Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905).  Adam Liptak, The Supreme Court Won’t Block Indiana University’s Vaccine Mandate, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/12/us/supreme-court-indiana-university-covid-vaccine-mandate.html (last visited Aug. 13, 2021).  Liptak, supra note 34.  Id.  https://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/media-center/news/general-new-covid-19-guidance-for-fall-sports-released  https://www.staradvertiser.com/2021/08/04/sports/sports-breaking/university-of-hawaii-requiring-student-athletes-to-receive-covid-19-vaccination-to-compete-in-sports/