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Law professor sues George Mason University, challenging covid vaccine mandate

A statue of George Mason is seen at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. A professor challenged the school's coronavirus vaccine mandate Wednesday, arguing it is unconstitutional. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A law-school professor filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging George Mason University’s coronavirus vaccine mandate, arguing it is unnecessarily coercive and unconstitutional.

The nonprofit New Civil Liberties Alliance filed the case against George Mason’s president and some of its other leaders in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on behalf of Todd Zywicki, a professor at the university’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

The lawsuit argues that the public university has no compelling interest in overriding Zywicki’s personal autonomy and that because none of the vaccines approved for use in the United States has received full Food and Drug Administration approval, the school’s policy is in conflict with federal law.

Robin Rose Parker, a spokeswoman for George Mason, said the university has no comment on the litigation.

Colleges across the country are grappling with how to keep campuses safe as classes resume this fall amid surging cases of the novel coronavirus in some areas, evolving understanding of vaccine efficacy and new variants, political divides and deep pandemic weariness.

Some universities are mandating coronavirus vaccination and other public-health measures, while others are allowing students, faculty and staff to choose for themselves.

And people have pushed back on both sides of the issue, with students and faculty on some campuses calling for stricter requirements and lawsuits challenging mandates on others.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Wednesday, faculty leaders worried about a recent surge in covid-19 cases passed a resolution urging state university system leaders to give the flagship school’s chancellor and provost the authority to mandate proof of vaccination and provide guidance on masking and other protocols.

Colleges want students to get a coronavirus vaccine. But they’re split on requiring the shots.

At George Mason, officials advised the university community this summer that all students, faculty and staff would be required to give proof that they had been vaccinated.

Gregory Washington, the university’s president, wrote in a message to campus that the single most effective way to avoid the virus and stop its spread is for those who can get vaccinated to do so as soon as possible. “I recognize that a mandate is an extraordinary step to take,” he wrote, “and one not taken without serious consideration of the public health situation and the safety of our community.”

The lawsuit contends that the university also notified campus that those who have not provided proof of vaccination will be required to undergo frequent testing, wear masks and practice social distancing — and that failure to comply could trigger consequences including termination of their jobs at the public university.

Zywicki said in an interview that he would have gotten vaccinated if he had not already contracted, and recovered from, covid-19. He said he was advised by his immunologist that he has strong natural immunity to the virus now, confirmed by positive antibody tests, and that a vaccine is medically unnecessary.

“I would rather rely on the advice of my doctor,” Zywicki said, “than mid-level bureaucrats at Mason who are designing a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Zywicki said the university should treat him like someone who has been vaccinated. Because the exemption the school offers would require him to comply with other rules, he said, he would not be able to do his job as well. It’s hard to teach with a mask on, for example, he said, and he couldn’t meet with students the way he normally would.