On a spring evening in March, 2009, Megan Radford stood outside of the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. The 22-year-old was about to see her idol, Britney Spears, perform as part of her bestselling Circus tour. But unlike the excited fans flooding the arena in schoolgirl outfits and red latex catsuits, Radford was wearing a homemade pink t-shirt emblazoned with the words “FREE BRITNEY” in black letters.
This was the first, but not the last, time that Radford would protest against Britney Spears’ conservatorship – the permanent legal control of her finances, career decisions and major personal matters by her father, Jamie Spears – which had been in effect since 2008. “I knew something was off, but I still went to the concert,” Radford tells VICE. “I didn’t understand that by going I was actually contributing to the problem.”
What Radford didn’t know, was that within a decade she would become one of the most recognisable faces of the #FreeBritney movement that spread across the world, and helped force the termination of Spears’ conservatorship in November 2021. “My voice was muted and threatened for so long…” said Spears in a video posted to Twitter, as she thanked the fans that had pioneered the movement. “Because of you, I honestly think you guys saved my life.”
It would be understandable for many of us to assume that these fans, known online as the Britney Army, simply returned to their fan duties after Britney’s liberation. Instead, many of them – now equipped with a deep understanding of America’s broken conservatorship system and the legal framework that surrounds it – have become tireless human rights activists, turning their attention to other unjust cases amongst the estimated 1.3 million other Americans living under conservatorships. “It’s difficult to learn what we have learned and not feel compelled to act,” explains Radford, who is now co-manager of Free Britney LA.
Intended as a last resort, a conservatorship – sometimes known as a guardianship – is a court-ordered arrangement typically reserved for elderly or disabled people believed to be incapable of handling their own personal and/or financial affairs. Governed by US state laws, it’s believed that by allocating the management of these decisions to a conservator (usually a family member), a conservatorship will protect a vulnerable individual from financial exploitation and help fulfil their basic daily needs. High profile conservatorships include the Hollywood actress Amanda Bynes and the Pop Art figure Peter Max.
While many experts believe that some conservatorships can be beneficial, others have argued that they can become a vessel for a conservator to neglect, abuse and steal from a conservatee. In 2010, a Government Accountability Office guardianship review of 20 conservatorship cases found that guardians “stole or otherwise improperly obtained $5.4 million in assets from 158 incapacitate victims”.
Retail manager John Fernandes started the Touch of Rose Project with fellow activists after attending a #FreeBritney rally in New York in 2020. “Britney was first, but now we have so many other people we need to help,” the 31-year-old says. “No matter an individual's condition, physical or psychological, ripping their human and civil rights away because they’re ageing, disabled, or just because you disagree with their decisions is completely wrong.”
Fernandes’ social media project shares information on high-profile conservatorship cases, organises anti-conservatorship rallies and sells merchandise – the profits of which he will use to fund a national “court watchers” initiative to expose abuse in conservatorship hearings.
Rachel, who lives in the UK, admits that she only became a fan of Spears in 2019 after learning about her circumstances. Known on Twitter as @freebritplease, the graphic designer had never heard of a conservatorship before, but educated herself by trawling through court documents and researching anti-conservatorship abuse charities like KasemCares and NASGA (National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse).
She tells me that throughout the #FreeBritney movement, fans used social media to connect with other anti-conservatorship advocates and the families of victims, “who went on to attend rallies, speak out and validate the corruption happening within the guardianship system”. Now, she shares case updates with her followers and uses her design skills to amplify statistics of conservatorship abuse online.
One of the advocates Rachel connected with was the film producer Angelique Fawcette. Fawcette’s close friend is 89-year-old Nichelle Nichols, who, as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, made history in the 60s as one of the first Black women to be featured in an American television series. Nichols is currently under the court-appointed control of her son, Kyle Johnson. Fawcette is legally disputing the Nichols’ conservatorship, questioning the dementia diagnosis that permitted its implementation and arguing that Nichols is more than capable of making her own decisions. On January 10th, #FreeBritney protestors joined Fawcette and held a rally in Los Angeles calling for Nichols’ conservatorship to be terminated.
Fawcette gushes about the “strategic, intelligent and compassionate” members of the #FreeBritney movement that are helping to raise awareness of her friend’s circumstances. “These people aren’t just fans wearing pink T-shirts, they’re activists who are serious about human rights,” she says. “I will owe them for the rest of my life.”
In the case of Spears and many others, the question is: Why do these legal structures, created to provide safety from abuse and exploitation, end up causing so much harm to the very people they are designed to protect? Lisa MacCarley, a Californian probate and conservatorship thinks that conservatorships are imposed too willingly, and that the “woeful underfunding” of the US probate court system prevents judges from receiving adequate training and the tools required to understand how to review these complex cases.
“We have these judges, who have never even practised conservatorship law or had sufficient training, making big life or death decisions,” says MacCarley, who has nearly 30 years of experience representing conservatees and their families in court. “It’s a systemic issue, especially in places like California, Nevada and New York, where these hotbeds of abuse exist.”
MacCarley vehemently supports reform and tells me that she’s been trying to raise awareness of dysfunction and cronyism in the system for years. Hailing the #FreeBritney movement as “a miracle”, she says it has finally pushed politicians to understand that conservatorship abuse is not something to be something to be swept under the rug.
In January 2022, Free Britney LA joined a number of disability rights groups to push for new legislation in California. Backed by the Democratic Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, the proposed bill would make it easier to end conservatorships for those who wish to leave them. Instead, it would favour alternatives like “supported decision-making”, in which an individual elects someone to assist them in making and communicating life decisions, rather than relinquishing all control.
“We understand that you can’t just abolish a system overnight,” says Radford. “Our goal is to make it harder to get into a conservatorship, and easier to get out. Once that flow is slowed down, we can start working towards abolition.”
It’s undeniable that the #FreeBritney movement has redefined what it means to be a super fan. The trajectory many of them have made from pop die-hards into emboldened human rights activists helping to shape legislation, is unprecedented. When I ask Radford what separates Britney fans from other fans, she refers to a meme she saw online. “Instead of bursting with photos of our idol, the camera rolls on our phones are full of screenshots of research and court documents,” she says, “I think that sums it up quite nicely.”