Fact check: False claim about Supreme Court and vaccination

The claim: The Supreme Court has “canceled universal vaccination”

As more than 40 states consider legislation that would prohibit COVID-19 vaccine mandates, an old hoax about the Supreme Court and vaccination has been resurrected on social media.

A screenshot published in a May 27 Instagram post says the highest court in the nation has “canceled universal vaccination.”

“Bill Gates, US Chief Infectious Disease Specialist (Dr. Anthony) Fauci, and Big Pharma have lost a lawsuit in the US Supreme Court, failing to prove that all of their vaccines over the past 32 years have been safe for the health of citizens!” text in the screenshot reads. “The lawsuit was filed by a group of scientists led by Senator Kennedy.”

The screenshot traces back to a May 23 article from Inspirer Radio, a Nigerian website. The “senator” referenced in the article and related social media posts is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine activist and the nephew of President John F. Kennedy. The Inspirer Radio article includes a long anti-coronavirus vaccine screed attributed to Kennedy.

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The Supreme Court has not ruled against vaccine mandates. Independent fact-checking organizations debunked a similar hoax circulating on social media last year.

Ikedieze Kanu Okorie, CEO of the company that operates Inspirer Radio, told USA TODAY he didn’t have any “strong evidence” to support the original story and had published a fact check on his website May 26 pointing out it isn’t true. That check was originally published by the Agence France-Presse in April.

But Inspirer Radio left the original story online as of May 28.

USA TODAY reached out to social media users who shared the claim for additional comment.

No “universal vaccination” case

The federal government does not require universal vaccination in the U.S., and the Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on the issue.

A search for recent cases on universal vaccination turned up no results from the Oyez Project, an unofficial Supreme Court archive. A docket search on the court’s website also didn’t turn up any recent rulings on vaccines. And there are no cases in either search naming Gates and Fauci as co-defendants.

There is no federal law that mandates vaccines for all citizens. Instead, states and employers generally have the right to require vaccination. 

San Pedro High School students hold vaccination signs at a school-based COVID-19 vaccination event on Monday for students 12 years and older in San Pedro, California. (Photo: Damian Dovarganes, AP Images)

For example, all 50 states require some vaccines for children attending public schools, with exceptions for those with disabilities or with religious, philosophical or medical objections. To date, no states have passed laws requiring COVID-19 vaccination, and then-President-elect Joe Biden said in December that he would not make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory.

In the past, the Supreme Court has upheld laws requiring vaccination.

In the 1905 Supreme Court decision Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the court found a Massachusetts law permitting vaccine mandates did not violate the right to liberty protected by the 14th Amendment.

The claim about a Supreme Court decision on universal vaccination appears to stem from a 2018 Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in a U.S. district court in New York, AFP reported.

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That lawsuit, filed by the anti-vaccine Informed Consent Action Network and backed by Kennedy, alleged the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services withheld reports on vaccine side effects.

The department did not locate records responsive to ICAN’s public information request, but it had monitored vaccines for safety. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York — not the Supreme Court — and it did not deal with the legality of universal vaccination.

“That statement is untrue. Idk where it came from,” Kennedy told USA TODAY in an email.

USA TODAY reached out to the Supreme Court for comment.

Our rating: False

The claim that the Supreme Court has “canceled universal vaccination” is FALSE, based on our research. The Supreme Court has not recently ruled against vaccine mandates. To the contrary, the court has previously upheld states’ authority to require vaccination. The claim is an old hoax that has been repeatedly debunked by independent fact-checkers.

Our fact-check sources:

  • Instagram post, May 27
  • T&T Exposed, May 23, Facebook post
  • Inspirer News, May 23, *Supreme Court has canceled universal vaccination* – Senator Robert F. Kennedy Jr (archived)
  • USA TODAY, April 27, State lawmakers opposed to COVID vaccine mandates have filed a flurry of bills this session. Some worry about the message they send.
  • Agence France-Presse, April 23, The US Supreme Court did not rule against mandatory vaccination
  • Inspirer Radio, May 26, The US Supreme Court did not rule against mandatory vaccination (archived)
  • Vanity Fair, May 13, How Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Became the Anti-vaxxer Icon of America’s Nightmares
  • The Oyez Project, accessed May 27
  • U.S. Supreme Court, accessed May 28, Docket Search
  • USA TODAY, May 25, Fact check: Federal law does not prevent states, businesses, employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccines
  • National Conference of State Legislatures, accessed May 28, States With Religious and Philosophical Exemptions From School Immunization Requirements
  • Husch Blackwell, accessed May 28, 50-state Update on Pending Legislation Pertaining to Employer-mandated Vaccinations
  • Oyez, accessed May 28, Jacobson v. Massachusetts
  • Lead Stories, May 26, 2020, Fact Check: Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci & Big Pharma Did NOT Lose A Massive Supreme Court Case
  • PolitiFact, April 10, 2019, No, Health and Human Services didn’t say it failed to monitor vaccine safety
  • U.S. Department of Justice, accessed May 28, List of Freedom of Information Act Decisions Rendered in 2018
  • U.S. District Court Southern District of New York, July 9, 2018, Stipulation in Informed Consent Action Network v. United States Department of Health and Human Services
  • USA TODAY, Dec. 5, 2020, Yes, some Americans may be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine but not by the federal government.
  • Robert F. Kennedy, May 28, Email exchange with USA TODAY

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