Britney Spears fans planned to rally from coast to coast Wednesday as the singer’s conservatorship case heads back to court.
After Spears called for an end to the 13-year arrangement during her explosive June 23 hearing, her court-appointed attorney and the wealth management company set to become co-conservator each requested to resign. Still, no motion to end the conservatorship has been filed, though that could be discussed at Wednesday’s hearing.
Fans from New York to L.A. and Salt Lake City to San Antonio were expected to spend the day not only advocating for the singer’s freedom, but for conservatorship and guardianship reform.
“This is history,” said Megan Radford, a Spears fan and organizer for Free Britney LA, a group that organizes protests. “A group of fans could create a movement that will go on to not only free Britney Spears, but I fully believe that it will reform the probate laws in the state of California and beyond.”
In recent years, pop stars have increasingly called for real political action. Artists like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande have used their platforms to voice support for issues including LGBTQ rights and to encourage their fans to register to vote. Kanye West ran for president.
The #FreeBritney movement, though, is something else entirely.
The campaign to end Spears’ conservatorship is fan-created, grassroots and totally bipartisan. It’s reminiscent of the political action taken by K-pop fans, who organize fundraisers and campaigns independent of their favored boy bands or girl groups, rather than the pop star-led politics we typically see in the U.S. It’s also especially well suited for this particular moment.
At a time when we can’t seem to agree on much at all, everyone seems to agree when it comes to Britney. Republicans and Democrats alike have voiced their support for the singer, and legislation to reform conservatorships has popped up in state legislatures from California to Florida.
“It’s not a blue-state problem, it’s not a red-state problem,” said Lisa MacCarley, a Los Angeles attorney at law in private practice with an emphasis on conservatorships and probate. “Everywhere in the country, people are being affected by laws that need to be updated.”
How fans take action
After being hospitalized in 2008, Spears was placed in a conservatorship managed by her father, Jamie Spears. Under the arrangement, Britney Spears has no control over her money or even the color of her cabinets, according to court documents obtained by The New York Times.
Because conservatorships and guardianships are typically used for the elderly or disabled, Spears’ fans have raised questions about the arrangement as it has dragged on.
The phrase “free Britney” was first popularized in 2009 by Jordan Miller, founder of the Britney-centric pop music site Breathe Heavy. It became a rallying cry for fans who didn’t understand why the long-running conservatorship was still in place as Spears worked and toured.
Their concerns weren’t taken seriously at first, but a major milestone came in September 2020, when a court filing revealed Spears welcomed her fans’ support as she sought to regain her autonomy.
“Britney welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans,” the filing stated.
Pop music has for some time borrowed ironically from the language of social movements. “Justice” means advocating for C-list pop stars who should be A-list, or flop songs that deserved to be hits. The online campaign #justiceforglitter sent Mariah Carey’s 2001 soundtrack to the top of the iTunes charts in 2018.
But in Spears’ case — as well as Kesha, who had her own #freekesha movement to free her from a contract with a producer she accused of sexual assault — fans weren’t looking for redemption on the charts. This isn’t appropriating the language of social movements; fans want actual justice.
Today, Free Britney LA calls on #FreeBritney supporters to take action. Their website suggests writing letters to public officials, including California’s Attorney General Rob Bonta and Gov. Gavin Newsom, and it has links to find contact information for your local U.S. representative and to file a formal complaint with the State Bar of California.
The group also calls for a full boycott of Spears’ music, and for retailers and streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music to pull Spears’ catalog from their platforms. The boycott proposal is controversial among Spears fans, Radford said, but they chose to stop listening as a statement against Britney Inc.
“Any money going into the Britney brand is only feeding the thief that is the conservatorship,” she said.
About a year ago, after realizing there were others in Spears’ situation, Radford said they reached out to probate reform advocacy groups, including Spectrum Institute and the Center for Estate Administration Reform. With the spotlight provided by Spears’ celebrity, they’ve been able to bring the issue to the mainstream.
“We’re leveraging the work that these organizations have done for years,” Radford said.
The movement’s increased visibility has come on the heels of other substantive, celebrity-driven political action. Paris Hilton is calling for reform to “troubled teen” therapy because of her personal experiences, and Kim Kardashian took criminal justice reform to the Oval Office.
Like criminal justice reform, #FreeBritney and the larger conservatorship reform movement is about personal freedom, and both have benefitted from bipartisan support in Washington. Lawmakers ranging from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have expressed concern for Spears. Earlier this month, Warren and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., asked the Department of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services to provide any data the agencies had collected about the prevalence of guardianships and conservatorships.
Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, said he supports conservatorship reform because his aunt was in an abusive guardianship. In a statement earlier this month, Owens said he “saw firsthand how legal mechanisms like this, when abused, can leave vulnerable people feeling voiceless and violated by the system designed to protect them.”
‘Go call the governor’
There’s no reliable information about how many people nationwide are in abusive conservatorships — one thing #FreeBritney supporters hope will change — but a 2011 MetLife study on elder financial abuse estimated the annual financial loss to be at least $2.9 billion.
In 2019, one former Nevada guardian with hundreds of elderly or disabled clients was sentenced up to 40 years after being accused of taking her clients’ money and isolating them from their families, according to KTNV in Las Vegas.
Anecdotally, MacCarley said, “most conservatorships are operating appropriately most of the time,” but for the less than 3% to 5% of conservatees she estimates are in abusive conservatorships, “it’s your worst nightmare.”
Spears alleged during her testimony that she is being prevented from taking out an IUD and having another child, and that she had been drugged and forced into a mental health facility against her will.
“I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive,” Spears said in her testimony. “But ma’am, there is a thousand conservatorships that are abusive as well.”
MacCarley said conservatorship reform should include better training, oversight and an easier way for those in abusive conservatorships to seek redress. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a guardianship reform bill last month, and one California reform bill, Assembly Bill 1194, would make an abusive conservator liable for up to $10,000 in civil penalties for every act of abuse. The bill also bars courts from allowing guardians to hire entities they have a financial interest in.
California Assemblymember Evan Low, a Democrat who represents Cupertino and introduced the bill, said the New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears” catapulted the issue of conservatorship reform into the public consciousness, and that changes will help average Californians without the celebrity or visibility of Spears. The singer’s story has allowed “for an environment where other families, other individuals who are impacted by this feel that they can also communicate and convey their circumstances,” Low said.
The appeal of #FreeBritney is broad. It’s where pro-life and pro-choice come together. Meghan McCain suggested what Spears has gone through is a human rights crime and Teen Vogue called it a disability rights issue. Christina Aguilera is on board and White House press secretary Jen Psaki is monitoring the situation.
“The #FreeBritney movement has been absolutely brilliant because they understood intuitively that there was something very wrong with a system where Ms. Spears could perform so magically and so wonderfully in front of hundreds of thousands of people for years at a time, and yet still be deemed incapacitated to manage her own medical and financial affairs,” said MacCarley, the attorney.
“We are very grateful that they are finally bringing attention to a nationwide problem,” she added.
Now, the fan base that bought up nearly 100 million records and made “Britney: Piece of Me” the top Las Vegas residency have their sights set on policy. “Go call the governor!” Spears proclaimed in one 2013 hit. Her fans were listening.