Attending a public university is a privilege granted to those who earn it, and, at Washington State University’s campuses, next year it will come with a vaccine card. Although some might chafe at the requirement, it is well-grounded in law.
While arguments about personal or religious freedom are pertinent, the issue appears similar to the state’s right to require the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine for students to attend public K-12 schools. State officials have broad powers to promote and protect public health.
Officials announced last week that, beginning in the fall, proof of vaccination will be required for students, employees and volunteers on campuses — including WSU Vancouver. Students attending class remotely will be exempt.
“WSU has an obligation to serve the public good and promote the health and safety of the communities it serves,” university President Kirk Schulz said. “The COVID-19 vaccine, now widely available, has been shown to nearly eliminate the chances of death or serious illness related to a COVID-19 infection and is a critical element in protecting public health locally and worldwide.”
The issue is an inevitable result of the new landscape created by the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are adopting similar policies. A New York Times survey last week identified at least 100 colleges and universities that will require vaccinations in order to attend classes on campus in the fall. More are certain to follow suit.
The moves come as schools prepare for increased in-person attendance in the fall and as young adults show susceptibility to new variants of COVID-19. More than 660,000 coronavirus cases have been linked to colleges since the start of the pandemic, with one-third of those since Jan. 1.
Reasonable objections can be raised to vaccine requirements. Personal liberty is nearly sacrosanct in the United States, and there must be some limits to the state’s power to compel inoculations or to prohibit services for students who decline vaccinations.
Courts, however, have routinely ruled that government has a right to protect public health.
In 1905 in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that, “the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly free from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good.”
In 1922, in Zucht v. King, the court upheld proof-of-vaccination rules for school children. Other courts have upheld similar laws, and in 2019 the Washington Legislature limited exceptions to the state’s school vaccine law.
In addition to questions about vaccine requirements on college campuses, the issue is likely to arise regarding “vaccine passports” or requirements from businesses that patrons be inoculated. Can schools and businesses legally demand proof? The New York Times writes: “Legal experts say the answer to all of these questions is generally yes, though in a society so divided, politicians are already girding for a fight.”
Businesses ranging from airlines to basketball teams have adopted policies regarding vaccination status. And some states, including Texas, have moved to prevent inoculation requirements.
The topic speaks to the basic issues of personal responsibility and public health, and likely will result in court cases for years to come.
But the immediate impact is simple: For the public good, students on WSU campuses must be vaccinated.