Social Media and Ending a Legal Conservatorship: The #FreeBritney Movement

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Social Media and Ending a Legal Conservatorship: The #FreeBritney Movement

By: Sophie Thornton

Conservatorships typically apply to the elderly or severely mentally incapacitated.[1] However, a different view of conservatorships was suddenly thrust into the public eye when Britney Spears was placed under a conservatorship in 2008.[2] The #FreeBritney movement began to gain momentum in 2019.[3] By 2021, pop culture icon Britney Spears’ 13-year long conservatorship was terminated.[4] A movement that started on social media gained enough traction to not only change the course of Britney’s life but to spur potential reactive legislation against harsh and abusive conservatorships. [5]

A conservatorship is “the appointment of a conservator by the court to manage a person’s affairs who is unable to handle them due to their mental capacity, age, or physical disability.”[6] Conservatorships can be short-term, temporary, or permanent in duration.[7] They may also be financial, physical, or both.[8] A financial conservatorship gives the conservator “full authority over the conservatee’s finances,” while a physical conservatorship gives the conservator authority over “the conservatee’s health and life.”[9] Finally, a conservatorship may be general or limited.[10] A general conservatorship provides the conservator with complete authority over all significant decisions concerning the conservatee. In contrast, a limited conservatorship gives the conservator control over only specific aspects of the conservatee’s life.[11]

Britney Spears was placed under a temporary conservatorship in 2008 after going through a divorce, losing custody of her two children, and attending two mental health facilities.[12] The media depicted her visits as evidence that she had a mental health condition.[13] Within that same year, Britney’s conservatorship was made permanent.[14] From 2008 until 2018, Britney continued to release albums, go on world tours, participate in long-term performance commitments in Las Vegas, and make other media appearances.[15] From 2008 to 2013, Britney’s father, Jamie Spears, acted as the conservator of Britney’s person.[16] From 2008 to 2019, he also acted as conservator of her finances.[17] This meant that Mr. Spears received a salary as Britney’s conservator and additional commissions from her career earnings.[18] The conservatorship also eliminated Britney’s autonomy in deciding her career path and financial choices. Most notably, the conservatorship also barred Britney from freedoms like getting remarried, having more children, or hiring her own legal counsel.[19]

As early as 2009, fan websites began speaking out against Britney’s conservatorship.[20] They believed that Britney’s continued work throughout her conservatorship proved that she was not legally incapacitated to the point of being unable to make any decisions about her life.[21] Fans also noticed that Britney was speaking out against the conservatorship and wanted to help.[22] Although the #FreeBritney movement does not have one pinpointed starter, it is entirely fan led.[23] Through podcasts, demonstrations outside court hearings, publishing court documents, and a social media frenzy, these fans brought attention to the violation of basic rights through Britney’s conservatorship.[24] This fan attention eventually led to a New York Times documentary on the subject, countless exposés and news articles, and even more public support in 2021.[25] Consequently, this growing pressure from social media helped terminate Britney’s conservatorship on November 12, 2021.[26]

The #FreeBritney movement has also sparked public concerns over the ethics of conservatorships. Zoe Brennan-Krohn, an American Civil Liberties Union’s disability rights lawyer, spoke out against conservatorships in stating, “We don’t know how long they’ve been there in them. We don’t know whether they want to be there. We don’t know why they’re there. We don’t know whether they have their own lawyers.”[27] In response to such concerns brought forward by the #FreeBritney movement, Congress members have spoken out, including Ted Cruz, Seth Moulton, and Elizabeth Warren.[28] Additionally, a bipartisan bill entitled the Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation Act (“FREE Act”) was introduced.[29] The FREE Act would “allow a person under a legal… conservatorship the right to petition the court to have their court-appointed [conservator] replaced with a public [conservator].”[30]

The #FreeBritney movement has made not only Britney’s voice, but the public’s voices heard. It remains a pivotal social media movement that has come to stand for more than a pop star. The #Free Britney movement stands for the human rights of all those in a conservatorship, and it is evident that their call for change impacted the law. “The cumulative voices of a community are powerful for shaping policy… #FreeBritney shows how people can join together and use their voices to enact change.”[31]

[1] Complete Guide to Conservatorship, Trust & Will, https://trustandwill.com/learn/what-is-conservatorship [https://perma.cc/9XTZ-W4LS] (last updated 2021).

[2] Free Britney! What Is a Conservatorship?, The Legal Examiner (Aug. 25, 2021) https://www.legalexaminer.com/legal/free-britney-what-is-a-conservatorship/ [https://perma.cc/HRA4-MHXM].

[3] E.g., Conservatorship Timeline How Did We Get Here?, FREEBRITNEY.ARMY, https://www.freebritney.army/timeline [https://perma.cc/RP6V-C29X], (last visited Jan. 19, 2022) [hereinafter FreeBritney].

[4] E.g., Id.

[5] See Aishvarya Kavi, Push to ‘Free Britney’ Gains Steam on Capitol Hill, NY Times (July 15, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/15/us/politics/britney-spears.html [https://perma.cc/N6S8-BBNU] (last updated Nov. 12, 2021).

[6] Conservatorship, law.cornell.edu, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/conservatorship#:~:text=A%20conservatorship%20is%20the%20appointment,referred%20to%20as%20%E2%80%9Cconservatee.%E2%80%9D [https://perma.cc/HRQ9-YVM7] (last visited Jan. 19, 2022).

[7] Eric Reed, What Is a Conservatorship, and How Does It Work?, smartasset (July 1, 2021), https://smartasset.com/financial-advisor/what-is-conservatorship [https://perma.cc/9HYW-GNUL].

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] FreeBritney, supra note 1.

[13] See Id.

[14] Id.

[15] See Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Joe Coscarelli & Julia Jacobs, Judge Ends Conservatorship Overseeing Britney Spears’s Life and Finances, NY Times (Nov. 12, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/12/arts/music/britney-spears-conservatorship-ends.html [https://perma.cc/V89G-APUB] (last updated Nov. 15, 2021).

[18] Id.

[19] See Britney Spears: Singer’s conservatorship case explained, BBC News (Nov. 12, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53494405 [https://perma.cc/754T-J6L7]; Coscarelli & Jacobs, supra note 14.

[20] FreeBritney, supra note 1.

[21] See The history behind the ‘Free Britney’ movement, Spectrum 1 News (Sept. 23, 2021, 4:00 PM), https://spectrumnews1.com/ca/la-west/la-times-today/2021/09/23/the-history-behind-the–free-britney–movement [https://perma.cc/R5NB-CJJN].

[22] Coscarelli & Jacobs, supra note 14; See Blake Morgan, What The #FreeBritney Movement Teaches About The Power of Community, Forbes (Sept. 7, 2021, 6:07 PM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/blakemorgan/2021/09/07/what-the-freebritney-movement-teaches-about-the-power-of-community/?sh=40cbd1e43fae [https://perma.cc/S8SM-3CNY].

[23] See Dani Anguiano, The #FreeBritney movement finds its moment: ‘All the hard work was worth it’, The Guardian (Nov. 14, 2021, 4:00 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/nov/14/freebritney-movement-britney-spears-conservatorship [https://perma.cc/8R2X-DKD6].

[24] Id.

[25] See FreeBritney, supra note 1.

[26] See Coscarelli & Jacobs, supra note 14.

[27] Kavi, supra note 3.

[28] Id.

[29] Bianca Betancourt, Why Longtime Britney Spears Fans Are Demanding to #FreeBritney, Harper’s Bazaar (Nov. 12, 2021, 5:39 PM) https://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/a34113034/why-longtime-britney-spears-fans-are-demanding-to-freebritney/ [https://perma.cc/TL57-QNCF].

[30] Id.

[31] Morgan, supra note 19.

Image Source: https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/cultures/free-britney-movement-freebritney