A group of 15 Ohio University students and one employee is suing the university in an effort to stop its COVID-19 vaccination mandate.
The civil suit, filed Dec. 7, 2021, in the Athens County Court of Common Pleas, argues — among other things — OU’s vaccine mandate violates the Ohio Constitution by infringing on people’s rights to turn down medical treatment.
On Aug. 31, 2021, OU President Hugh Sherman announced all students, faculty and staff were required to receive full doses of one of the three main COVID-19 vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — by Nov. 15, 2021. Although OU provided students, faculty and staff the opportunity to apply for and receive exemptions to the mandate, those who did not receive a vaccine or were not approved for an exemption were not allowed to come to campus for Spring Semester.
Warner Mendenhall, managing attorney at the Mendenhall Law Group, the firm representing the OU students and the employee, said the university’s mandate is discriminatory to the unvaccinated and compared requiring the vaccine to experimentation.
“We learned in World War II that it was immoral to experiment on human beings without their consent, informed consent,” Mendenhall said. “Everyone has a right to refuse to take anything that's experimental, and they should not have any consequences in their job or their education or their life on that.”
Though the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines have only received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, the Pfizer vaccine received full approval from the FDA for those 16 years of age and older in August 2021. Following that approval, the FDA announced the Pfizer vaccine would be marketed under the name Comirnaty.
Despite the FDA’s announcement, the lawsuit alleged the Comirnaty vaccine is not currently available.
Tyce Patt, a junior studying marketing at OU and one of the students involved in the lawsuit, said the basis of the lawsuit is the university’s mandate requires students to act in certain ways.
“Wearing masks in class might not be that bad, and taking a test every week might not be that bad, and then getting the vaccine might not be that bad and, for most people, it's not. What the problem boils back down to is requiring those things is illegal,” Patt said. “We do think that it would be important to set that precedent for other schools in the state and even across the country.”
Patt is also the creator of an August 2021 petition that garnered mixed reactions from university student groups and officials. He initially started looking into ways to take legal action against the university after several attempts of airing his grievances led to no action from university officials.
As a former member of OU Student Senate, Patt said he tried to express his concerns with the mandates and emailed university administrators over the course of several months. Change.org eventually took down his petition due to a rule violation, he said.
In response to the lawsuit, Carly Leatherwood, a university spokesperson, said OU is confident its actions trying to mitigate coronavirus exposure and spread are “necessary, scientifically supported, and legally valid.” Though she offered no further comment, she said the university is prepared to argue the matter in court.
In the lawsuit, Mendenhall is asking the judge for a preliminary injunction, which would temporarily discontinue the mandate while the rest of the legal details surrounding the case are decided. To receive the injunction, the plaintiffs must prove they have a “likelihood of success on the merits,” Mendenhall said, which he, Patt and the other plaintiffs believe they have.
“I think we’re going to 100% win the lawsuit,” Patt said. “We’re really serious about this, to the point where we're willing to go outside of the lawsuit even and advocate for change at other universities.”