Indiana University students compare COVID vaccine mandate to Tuskegee experiment in lawsuit

Medical ethicist faults university for "word games" that violate spirit of state's ban on vaccine passports.

Updated: June 22, 2021 - 11:12pm

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Indiana University is ignoring the Constitution, CDC recommendations, state and local law, and "modern medical ethics" by forcing students, faculty and staff to get a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of remaining enrolled or employed, a new lawsuit by several students claims.

It compares the mandate to the U.S. government's Tuskegee study that intentionally withheld treatment from African Americans unknowingly infected with syphilis: Both lack "voluntary and informed consent." 

The students also object to the strict mitigation measures required for those who have received medical or religious exemptions, including continued wearing of face masks and twice-weekly testing for the novel coronavirus.

The taxpayer-funded university hopes to get the suit thrown out by pointing to its revision of the mandate following a nonbinding advisory opinion by Attorney General Todd Rokita, which found that requiring proof of vaccination violated Indiana's recent ban on so-called vaccine passports by state entities. 

IU no longer requires proof of vaccination to be uploaded to its system but simply requires community members to "attest that they are vaccinated" through its online report form, according to the revised wording of its COVID-19 vaccine page.

The original wording of the page, before Rokita's opinion, said they must "report all doses" of the vaccine they took and "will need to" upload documentation, such as a photo of the CDC card they received at their appointment. "The attorney general's opinion affirmed our right to require the vaccine," just not proof, a spokesperson told the Indianapolis Star.

The lawsuit cites a Wall Street Journal op-ed that argues university mandates on students should be scrapped as a violation of medical ethics, given their low risk from COVID and potential risks of experimental vaccines on untested populations, such as those with natural immunity.

But the University of Notre Dame law professor who cowrote it, Gerard Bradley, told Just the News he didn't see the lawsuit succeeding because it is "very heavily dependent upon medical facts and statistics," which would make "most judges very wary" of striking down the mandate, he said.

His coauthor, University of California Irvine medical ethicist Aaron Kheriaty, faulted IU for playing "word games" to get around state law. Requiring students to "attest" to their vaccination "violates the spirit and intent of the vaccine passport law, and probably the letter of the law as well," and Kheriaty hopes the students win the lawsuit, he told Just the News.

The attorney behind the suit is James Bopp, known for filing the Citizens United case that led the Supreme Court to strike down campaign finance restrictions on First Amendment grounds.

"Increasingly, the medical community is acknowledging the risks and side effects of COVID vaccines including myocarditis, Bell's Palsy, Pulmonary Embolus, Pulmonary Immunopathology, and severe allergic reaction causing anaphylactic shock," a press release by Bopp's law firm said. "These emerging risks are especially prevalent for those 18-29 years old."

The university did not respond to a request to explain how online self-certification works in the absence of vaccine documentation, particularly if students who already obtained exemptions can now falsely certify they are vaccinated in order to escape ongoing mask-wearing and testing.

Just the News also asked if students who falsely certify they are vaccinated can be disciplined under the student code of conduct if the university learns of their misrepresentation.

Noncompliance punished by 'virtual expulsion'

The university sprung the far-reaching mandate on the community a month ago, provoking two state lawmakers to ask Rokita about its legality in light of the new ban on vaccine passports. 

The attorney general determined as a threshold matter that public universities were covered by the law, even though it didn't mention them specifically, because they are "part of 'the state.'" 

While Purdue University's mandate passes muster for giving students an option to "participate in frequent mandatory surveillance testing" in lieu of submitting vaccine documentation, IU's policy "clearly violates" the law by providing "no other option or alternative to vaccination," he said May 26. Rokita noted the university repeatedly said any exemptions would be "strictly limited."

The lawsuit by IU undergraduate, business and law students argues repeatedly they face "virtual expulsion" — cancelation of their class registrations and campus privileges — for refusing to submit to unconstitutional vaccination mandates.

The exemptions do not cover students with medical conditions where COVID vaccination is "contraindicated," those with natural immunity or students who take in-person classes online. Exempted students can be expelled from IU for not wearing face masks in public or not getting tested twice weekly, it says. 

One of the students, Jaime Carini, suffers from "multiple chronic illnesses." Despite her "world-renowned infectious disease doctor" telling the university the vaccine could worsen the "inflammatory nature" of her illness, IU rejected her exemption request.

The university's "Restart Committee" recommended the mandate despite stating explicitly that it assumed the community would reach herd immunity without a mandate, the suit said. The students' lawyers filed a public records request for documents related to IU's decision but has not received any.

Because the three U.S. vaccines were approved under emergency use authorizations (EUAs), students must be informed of the "significant known and potential" risks they pose and freely consent to taking them. "The threat of virtual expulsion ... is not an attempt to garner consent — it is coercion."

The vaccines are nothing like "pediatric vaccines" long required in elementary schools because of the serious medical risks to children from diseases such as polio and measles. College students have a COVID risk "close to zero" for "serious morbidity and mortality."

The lawsuit argues that the COVID-19 pandemic is "virtually over," citing a statistical formula that finds Indiana has already reached herd immunity through vaccination and natural immunity. Infection rates continued falling three weeks after a feared "super spreader" event, the Indianapolis 500.

It refers to research about the infrequency of asymptomatic spread, rarity of serious COVID cases among college students and lack of transmission from returning students to the surrounding community.

At Indiana University, no one has died, and only one person was hospitalized with COVID, "even at the peak of the pandemic," as the university's Restart Committee admitted, the suit said.

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