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The Legality of Vaccine Mandates

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available, we are seeing employers, universities, and other organizations requiring vaccinations for those hoping to participate in the organization in person. Oregon State University, for example, announced this month that it is requiring all students and staff working on campus starting Fall 2021 to be vaccinated.

Are vaccine mandates legal? In short, yes. The federal government's authority to mandate vaccinations of any kind is limited; however, all 50 states have at least some vaccine mandates for children attending public schools and even those attending private schools and day-care centers.

States and local governments can lean on Jacobson v. Massachusetts, a Supreme Court decision from 1905 in which the Court held that the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts could fine residents who refused to receive smallpox injections. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote about the police power of states to regulate for the protection of public health: “The good and welfare of the Commonwealth, of which the legislature is primarily the judge, is the basis on which the police power rests in Massachusetts,” Harlan said “upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.” The Court later noted that Jacobson settled that a state may delegate authority to a municipality to determine under what conditions health regulations should be operative. Read more about the history of these cases in this article.

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