For the last 12 years, Britney Spears has been in a conservatorship that limits the amount of control she has over her finances, career, and life. While there have been fans using the term “Free Britney” to voice their opposition to the conservatorship for over a decade, the idea has blown up massively over the last year or so, and now there could be changes coming to the entertainer's situation.
Free Britney’s big moment came last April when a podcast called Britney’s Gram posted a voicemail from an anonymous man claiming to be a paralegal who had worked on Britney’s conservatorship. The caller claimed that the people in charge of the conservatorship were forcing Britney to seek treatment for her mental health against her will, raising concerns amongst fans for her wellbeing.
Since that podcast dropped, Free Britney has become a full-fledged protest movement. The #FreeBritney hashtag has trended on social media multiple times; a Change.org petition titled “Britney Spears: right to her own lawyer” has gathered more than a quarter of a million signatures; fans have organized letter-writing campaigns lobbying the media to cover Britney’s case; celebrities including Cher, Miley Cyrus, and Paris Hilton have voiced their support; and, according to Britney’s dad, members of Britney’s family and team have been on the receiving end of harassment and threats from supporters of the campaign.
Britney has been in the conservatorship since 2008. It was introduced after several instances of worrying behavior that, thanks to exhaustive media coverage, late-night TV jokes, and memes, you're probably extremely familiar with (the umbrella incident, the head shaving, the involuntary psychiatric holds, etc.).
The conservatorship gave her dad, Jamie Spears, control of her finances, business decisions, and some aspects of her daily life. As reported by the New York Times in 2016, “[Britney’s] most mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes, are tracked in court documents as part of the plan to safeguard the great fortune she has earned but does not ultimately control.” The people involved in her conservatorship have changed a few times over the years, but the basics have remained the same: Britney is not in control of many key aspects of her life.
However, Britney is fighting to change that. In court documents filed last week and obtained by the LA Times, her lawyer wrote that Britney "strongly opposes" her father remaining the sole conservator of her affairs and that the conservatorship "must be changed substantially in order to reflect the major changes in her current lifestyle and her stated wishes.”
In addition to the online pushback against the conservatorship, there have been several IRL Free Britney protests, mostly in Los Angeles.
“I came here today to show my support for Britney,” Britney fan Dustin Strand told me at a protest outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Downtown LA last month. “We’re not going to sit by and let these people take advantage of you anymore and we’re here to make sure you get your freedom.”
Another fan, Leanne Simmons, told me that the amount of money Britney generates makes her concerned that the people around her might not be acting in her best interests. “She’s worth a lot of money, and she continues to perform and work and make this money,” she said, referring to the many live performances, TV appearances, and musical releases that Britney has been involved in while under her conservatorship. “She’s not seeing any of it. She doesn’t have any control, really, over her finances.”
Britney has been mostly silent on the conservatorship until recently. Her most in-depth comment was in the 2008 documentary For the Record.
“There’s no excitement, there’s no passion,” she said of her life. “I have really good days, and then I have bad days… Even when you go to jail you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out. But in this situation, it’s never-ending. It’s just like Groundhog Day every day.”
#FreeBritney supporter Leanne Simmons
In the wake of the growing concern over her wellbeing, Britney posted on Instagram assuring fans that she’s doing fine. “I am trying to take a moment for myself, but everything that’s happening is just making it harder for me [...] my situation is unique, but I promise I’m doing what’s best at this moment, ” she wrote in an Instagram caption last April. But some fans don’t buy it. “She has no control over her entire life,” said Strand. “So how is she going to post a video and not have them skew it? That’s my thought when Britney says she’s OK.”
“On TikTok and Instagram, she’s been putting out these very bizarre videos,” a Britney fan named Clinton Cargile told me during a Free Britney protest last month. “There’s one [Instagram post] where she has a rose and an open book and at the bottom, it says Nicholas Nickleby, which is a Charles Dickens book about a young man whose father dies and he becomes financially responsible for his whole family and then they move to the city and he works for a man named Squeers who takes in unwanted children, takes their parents’ money, and pads his pockets while he abuses them, underfeeds them, and exploits them. So I think she’s giving all these messages that she needs help.”
Other fans told me that they believe Britney once sent a coded message through the color of her outfit and that she deliberately follows 116 accounts on Instagram because 116 is 911 written upside down. One man told me that Britney’s current situation was foretold in Kabbalah texts.
But some fans dismiss the conspiracies. “I’m not really into it,” said Elizabeth Denan, a Britney fan who’d traveled from Philadelphia to protest in LA when I asked her about the possibility that Britney was sending coded pleas for help. “I like to focus on facts and what the issue at hand here is.”
Britney seems to be an extremely private person and, throughout her time as a celebrity, has complained about intrusions into her private life. That's understandable considering everything from her virginity, to her physical appearance, to her abilities as a mother has been subjects of public discussion.
The pressure of being in the public eye and a need for privacy also seems to have been constant themes in her music: “She’s so lucky, she’s a star, but she cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart” ("Lucky"); “I don’t need permission to make my own decisions, why can’t they just let me live” ("My Prerogative"); “Don’t matter if I step on the scene or sneak away to the Philippines, they still gon’ put pictures of my derriere in the magazine” ("Piece of Me").
#FreeBritney supporters pre-COVID.
I wondered if there was any concern amongst the Free Britney protesters that the movement might actually be harming Britney. Regardless of a person’s mental state, it seems fairly likely that it might not be good for them to have to worry that they’re inadvertently sending secret messages through their choices in clothing, or to have hundreds of people flood their Instagram comments to accuse them of being a clone, or to see groups of protesters with signs demanding that their relatives and business associates be thrown in jail.
Simmons said she shares some of these concerns. “I do worry about some of the comments and that it could be detrimental to anyone who is reading them,” she said. “If I was Britney and I read some of the things people are saying, I think it would hurt me a little bit. And I don’t think that’s healthy for anybody.”
“I am not personally involved in [Britney’s conservatorship,] none of us really are,” she added. “And at the end of the day, I want what Britney wants. If she wants privacy I want that for her as well.”
#FreeBritney protestors before the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.