California Lawmaker Melendez Takes Aim at ‘Cancel Culture’

February 27, 2021 Updated: March 1, 2021

As the national conversation about “cancel culture” continues to heat up, one Southern California lawmaker is tackling the issue through policy.

State Sen. Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) said her constituents have told her they experience “cancel culture” shaming for their political affiliations. They worry they’ll be discriminated against in various ways for their affiliations.

In response, Melendez recently introduced anti-discrimination measures that seek to add “political affiliation” as a protected class under state law. If passed, the legislation will protect California residents from discrimination when seeking housing or employment.

“I hear about it all the time from constituents, and it’s very worrisome,” Melendez told The Epoch Times. “And I don’t know what to tell them, because, in their minds, they think that the law protects them—but when we looked further into it, it really doesn’t.”

Currently, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the Education Code prohibit discrimination based on gender, nationality, race, ethnicity, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, among other characteristics.

“But there’s little protection beyond that. Because of where we are today, as far as politics in this state and in this country, I want to make sure that people are protected for their political viewpoints,” said Melendez.

Senate Bill 238 (SB 238), also called the Diversity of Thought Act, would amend FEHA by adding political affiliation as a protected class, while Senate Bill 249 (SB 249) would amend the Education Code to prohibit discrimination and harassment in schools based on political affiliation. Both were introduced in January and referred to Assembly committees in February.

An Opponent: Worry, Fear, Tribalism

Liam O’Mara, a history professor at Chapman University and California State University–Dominguez Hills, is one of Melendez’s constituents. He opposes the bills.

He said the new bills were not serious, just a ploy to say Democrats don’t back free speech. O’Mara, who is a former and future Democratic congressional candidate in the 42nd District, told The Epoch Times he studies rhetoric and free speech issues.

“This is a part of my area of expertise,” he said. In his view, the anti-discrimination bill package is essentially political theater that serves to cultivate tribalism and “grievance culture.”

“I would say that people being pushed out for their views is actually a very real thing, but it’s a bipartisan problem,” O’Mara said. “What we can call ‘cancel culture’ has been a significant part of the conservative tool kit for decades. The perception of it is stronger these days, largely because of the insane levels of tribalism in our politics.”

Melendez agreed that it is a bipartisan issue.

“Right now, it’s Republicans who appear to be the only ones who are targeted … but 10 years from now, it could be Democrats or the Green Party. … I hope that everybody sees this. It’s for their protection, too. It’s not just Republicans.”

Melendez gave the example of a college student in her district who had a Trump–Pence logo next to his name in an online class. The instructor told him the logo was too much of a distraction, and if he didn’t remove it, the student would be expelled from class.

“What is going on in this state, where it is okay to just discriminate against someone because they differ with you politically?” Melendez asked. “That student ended up being allowed back into the class, but he had the backbone to fight back. What about the students who don’t?”

O’Mara drew a distinction between the First Amendment and the fear of losing free speech.

“There’s no actual threat to free speech in the U.S.—I mean, there just isn’t,” he said. However, “the worry is real, the fear is real,” he acknowledged.

“You can see these things developing culturally, and they do have a lot of real emotional resonance for people. The problem lies more in the feelings and perception than in the events. I’m sympathetic to the feelings for sure, but legislating against it is itself an assault on free speech and freedom of association.”

Attorney Gloria Allred, who specializes in discrimination cases, told The Epoch Times that she opposes SB 238 because she thinks it’s unnecessary.

“Employees in California already enjoy protection under California law and cannot be discriminated against because of their political affiliations unless their job performance is impacted by it. (California Labor Code Sections 1101 and 1102.),” Allred said via email. “I wonder if this bill (SB 238) is politically motivated, and if it is just another way to advance a Republican political agenda by portraying MAGA [Make America Great Again] supporters as victims.”

Melendez, however, points to attempts by California lawmakers to limit conservative views in the media.

‘State-Run Media’

She cited recent letters by Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney—both Democrats from California—asking AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Amazon, Apple, and other channel distributors why they plan to continue carrying “right-wing media outlets” like Fox News, One America News Network (OANN), and Newsmax.

The lawmakers accused the cable, satellite, and internet communications companies of playing “a major role in the spread of dangerous misinformation that enabled the insurrection of January 6th and hinders our public health response to the current pandemic.”

In response, Newsmax issued a statement saying, “The House Democrats’ attack on free speech and basic First Amendment rights should send chills down the spines of all Americans.”

Melendez said: “That’s where we are today. We’ve got a real problem, because then what you end up with is state-run media. … You don’t get the facts, you don’t get to discern for yourself what is true and what is false. The state tells you what to think. And that’s it. That’s all you get.”

Melendez also pointed out what she calls an attempt to target those with different beliefs by Assembly member Marc Levine (D-Marin County). He introduced a measure calling for the 147 members of Congress who voted to overturn the results of the November presidential election to be permanently banned from the chamber of the California State Assembly for “undermining democracy.”

‘Your Choice to Hate’

Melendez seemed to receive swift backlash from one colleague, Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), who issued a response via Twitter that didn’t mention her by name.

“I don’t know who needs to hear this today, but: Your racist, pro-domestic terrorism, xenophobic, misogynistic views do not warrant protection ‘from discrimination,’” Gonzalez said in a Feb. 16 tweet. “Your choice to hate & actively pursue hate does not make you part of a protected class.”

The California Globe called the message “a scorched-earth screed” clearly directed at Melendez’s bills, while Melendez said Gonzalez’s response reinforces the need for the Diversity of Thought Act she’s proposing.

“If you differ with someone politically, and then you decide you’re going to attach all these monikers to them like ‘racist’ and ‘misogynist’ … then you’re kind of making my point for me: This type of speech and this type of affiliation does need to be protected,” Melendez said. “Because that sends a message [that] it’s okay to attack, harass, target, [and] discriminate against people with whom you disagree.”

Gonzalez’s office didn’t immediately respond to an interview request from The Epoch Times.

Melendez’s primary concern is that the attitudes and behaviors of lawmakers will empower similar actions among private citizens.

“If members of Congress [and] leaders in our state and our country are sending that message and doing it themselves, you can bet that the average person is going to engage in that type of behavior also.”

Getting the Bill Right

Melendez said her primary concern is “the average Joe in his or her workplace who’s being targeted”—but she’s also aware of the broader problems that could result from cancel culture continuing unabated.

“I think the democracy that we are all familiar with really fades into the past. There are people in other countries who wish they had the types of freedoms we do,” she said.

“For the people who think this is great—’Oh, yeah, let’s go out there and get the pitchforks and attack those with whom we disagree’—they might want to look back in history to see how this has gone for others. Because I don’t think it’s a world that they want to live in.”

Right now, she’s consulting legal experts to ensure her legislation doesn’t cause any unintended consequences.

“I want to make sure that it’s narrow enough that we can make a good case for everybody to support it,” she said. “[We want] to make sure we get this right.”