September 27, 2021

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Anti-Vax Group Is Behind Lawsuit Targeting University Mandate

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A nonprofit group founded by prominent anti-vaccine advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is suing Rutgers University over its COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

Children’s Health Defense filed the lawsuit Monday on behalf of 18 Rutgers students. The plaintiffs argue that the university’s policy, which requires all students to be fully vaccinated for the fall semester, is illegal and “​​an affront to human dignity and personal freedom because it violates our basic right to control our bodies.“

It appears unlikely that the legal challenge will prove successful. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a similar challenge that eight students brought against Indiana University’s vaccine mandate.

There is arguably no one who has done more to spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and hesitancy than Kennedy Jr., the son of former presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and an environmental lawyer. He has peddled a number of debunked conspiracies about all sorts of vaccines, including that they cause autism.

In February, Instagram permanently banned him for spreading misinformation about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.

Despite its campaign to convince Americans not to get a potentially life-saving shot, Children’s Health Defense touts itself as being “devoted to the health of people and our planet.” The organization’s website is filled with coronavirus misinformation and conspiracy theories, and goes so far as to compare vaccine mandates to racial segregation

Children’s Health Defense and one other group accounted for more than half of all anti-vaccine advertising on Facebook, according to a paper published in January 2020.  Media Bias/Fact Check, a fact-checking website, labels the organization a “strong conspiracy and quackery level advocacy group.”

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (center) speaks at a rally against COVID-19 restrictions in Berlin in August 2020. 

There is, of course, irony in the group advocating for “health freedom” and personal choice while trying to control how schools conduct business. As the surge in the delta variant of the coronavirus makes clear, the personal choices of some Americans have prevented the nation from halting the spread of COVID-19 and returning to the freedoms that come with life outside a raging, deadly pandemic.

Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey with 71,000 students across its campuses, announced its vaccine requirement in March for all fall in-person learning. It does allow students to request exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Dozens of other private and public colleges and universities have implemented such mandates in order to protect the health and safety of students and staff as they attempt to resume more normal operations. 

A Rutgers spokesperson said “the university’s position on vaccines is consistent with the legal authority supporting this policy.”

“We are committed to creating a safe campus environment in fall 2021, and to support the health and safety for all members of the Rutgers community, the university updated its existing immunization requirements for students to include the COVID-19 vaccine,” the spokesperson said in an email. 

Kennedy Jr.’s many critics include several members of his own family. In an opinion piece in The New York Times last year, Kerry Kennedy Meltzer, a niece and an internal medicine resident at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, spoke out against her uncle and his anti-vaccine crusade. 

“His concern — that a Covid vaccine is potentially unsafe, and hasn’t been properly tested — is widespread, and dangerously wrong,” Meltzer wrote.

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