Long before Julie Lythcott-Haims won a seat on the Palo Alto City Council last November, she had established a national reputation as a public intellectual, a bestselling author and a speaker whose TED talks garnered millions of views.
A former attorney and Stanford University dean of freshmen, Lythcott-Haims has written three books since 2013, including her memoir, "Real American," and has been a writing mentor, a contributor of articles, a teacher of an online writing course and a participant in books talks and writer workshops.
But now that she has added "elected official" to her resume, Lythcott-Haims is facing an unexpected obstacle: a finding by the state Fair Political Practices Commission that could limit her ability to earn an income through speaking engagements. In an April 7 letter, the state agency concluded that she cannot make paid speeches or hold workshops if these activities make up more than 50% of her business income.
Lythcott-Haims publicly announced the finding at the end of the City Council's April 10 meeting, which she attended remotely from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
At issue is a state law that bans local elected officials from accepting any honorarium, which is defined as "any payment made in consideration for any speech given, article published, or attendance at any public or private conference, convention, meeting, social event, meal, or like gathering." But the Political Reform Act, which governs honorarium payments and which is meant to prevent corruption, allows payments for speeches as long as they are in the service of a "bona fide" business that has been around for at least two years before the payment was made.
This includes Lythcott-Haim's business, Love Over Time LLC, which she established in 2021, according to the FPPC letter.
Normally, this exception would be enough for Lythcott-Haims to continue her activities uninterrupted. However, the Political Reform Act also has a clause stating that a business would not be considered "bona fide" if its "predominant activity" is making speeches. This is defined as businesses in which more than 50% of the time is spent on speeches and those that acquire more than 50% of their income from speaking.
The FPPC concluded that because Lythcott-Haims received more than 50% of her company's income from its workshops and book talks, she would have to curtail these engagements until the payments she derives from them fall below 50% of her total income during the 12-month period.
The letter from FPPC General Counsel Dave Bainbridge and Assistant General Counsel Brian G. Lau acknowledges that Lythcott-Haims has been writing and participating in book talks and workshops for many years prior to winning public office. Her business, they note, can move forward with book publishing and article writing.
"However, we caution that Council Member Lythcott-Haims may not accept payment for any public engagement, including the courses currently being taught online, if income from speaking engagements exceeds 50% of the business's income in the 12 months prior to the speaking engagement," the letter states.
Moving forward, the letter states, Lythcott-Haims will only be able to "receive compensation from speeches and other public talks so long as speech making is not the predominate activity of her business."
Lythcott-Haims said Monday night, April 10, that she had requested an opinion from the FPPC shortly after getting elected. She wanted to make sure that the state rule restricting honoraria for locally elected officials "did not prevent me from continuing with my longstanding work with parents, youth and other audiences."
Upon learning about the FPPC finding, Lythcott-Haims said Monday that she has been discussing the issue with her legal adviser and preparing to request that the FPPC take another look at this finding. On Tuesday, April 11, she issued a statement on Instagram indicating that she will challenge the FPPC ruling.
"This issue likely impacts other California election officials who have legitimate businesses unrelated to their public services that involve public speaking," she said. "As such, because this regulation not only impacts me but others, I have decided to appeal this decision."
She also assured the public that the FPPC issue "does not call into question any of the council's decisions or the votes that I have taken."