Update: On November 10, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny announced that she would not suspend James Spears as conservator of his daughter. While she’s not suspending the conservatorship at the moment, the judge did say that she would consider future petitions for his suspension or outright removal. In a statement to the judge, Spears’ attorney Samuel D. Ingham III said: “My client has informed me that she is afraid of her father. She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.” Ingham III says that he plans to file in the future for the removal and outright suspension of the singer’s father as her conservator.
It’s been a pretty bonkers year so far, and it seems like things are not about to let up. In August, there was a resurgence of the #FreeBritney movement—which started in 2009 following claims by fans that singer Britney Spears was being controlled and manipulated by her family—after the star posted somewhat eerie videos of herself during quarantine and in light of the August 22 end date for her 12-year-long conservatorship (more on this later). But, in the same month that gave us conspiracy theories that posited that online furniture seller Wayfair is involved in child trafficking (a claim that the company and many experts have denied), it’s easy to become swept up in misinformation. Here, everything to know about the #FreeBritney movement and what exactly is going on with the pop singer.
What *exactly* is #FreeBritney and why did it start?
Back in 2009, #FreeBritney emerged as an online grassroots movement launched by fans of the singer in response to the 2008 decision by courts to appoint a conservator for Spears. (More on this below, but essentially the move means that someone who is not Spears—in her case, her father, Jamie Spears—has control over her financial decisions as well as her mental and physical health.) But not everyone was super thrilled with this decision. Fans quickly began to accuse the singer’s conservatorship of manipulating and controlling her.
In particular, the Spears fan site BreatheHeavy.com started a campaign to “Free Britney” from said conservatorship. Per The New York Times, Jordan Miller, the website’s owner, said that at one point he “received an irate call from Jamie Spears, who threatened to have the website taken down.”
In a 2008 interview with MTV, Spears talked about the conservatorship agreement, saying: “I think it’s too in control. If I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under, I’d feel so liberated.
“There’s no excitement, there’s no passion,” she continued. “Even when you go to jail, you know there’s the time when you’re going to get out. But in this situation, it’s never-ending.”
What is a conservatorship?
According to Toronto-based lawyer Joanna Weiss, a conservatorship (which is only applicable in the United States) is “a judge-ordered mechanism used in many American states to put the management of an incapable adult’s finances and, in some cases, their personal care decisions in the control of someone else.” In Ontario, where Weiss practices law, the equivalent mechanism is an order for guardianship. (Other provinces have adult guardianship laws, which are similar.) Speaking to guardianship law, Weiss—whose interest lies in mental-health and capacity law—says that these orders require a finding that a person is incapable of managing their own property. In Ontario, the test for this capacity is whether the person has the ability to understand the information relevant to making decisions respecting their property, health or personal care and the ability to reasonably foresee potential consequences of a decision.
And someone with guardianship over another individual has *a lot* of power. “Guardianship orders in Ontario can give the guardian complete control of an incapable person’s finances and all aspects of their personal care, including healthcare, nutrition, shelter, clothing, hygiene and safety,” Weiss says via email. “They can even include the power to apprehend the incapable person.” Thankfully, there are some exceptions. “A guardian cannot make a will for the incapable person nor may a guardian authorize elective sterilization,” she says.
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While an individual’s rights under the order vary on a case-by-case basis, one thing remains the same: “Guardianship orders in Ontario remain in place indefinitely until they are terminated or the incapable person passes away, at which point their executor becomes responsible for their estate,” says Weiss. “There is no automatic periodic review of the need for a guardian.”
If you’re still scratching your head as to why Spears—a 38-year-old woman who’s still touring the world and making money—is under a similar type of guardianship, you’re not alone. It is a little iffy. “Guardianship orders in Ontario are usually reserved for obvious cases of incapacity where a person who has not appointed an attorney using a power of attorney experiences a serious brain injury or develops advanced dementia that is expected to be permanent,” says Weiss. “They are used less frequently in cases where capacity is fluid such that a person may have intermittent periods of incapacity. Powers of attorney can be more flexible and allow an attorney to step in only when necessary.
“It would be unusual for an adult who is able to work at a high level in their industry to continue to require a guardian.”
Why was Britney Spears placed under a conservatorship?
Since February 2008, Spears has been under a court-order conservatorship for unspecified mental health issues. The decision came after the singer was hospitalized twice under psychiatric holds and had undergone multiple stints in a rehabilitation facility.
In the years leading up to this decision, the “Circus” singer had been publicly exhibiting erratic behaviour, especially from 2006 to 2008. During this period, as Refinery29 recalls in a May 9 article, Spears was subject to several home visits by child welfare services (to check in on her sons, Sean and Jayden Federline) following reports and photos of her potentially endangering her kids (like a February 2006 photo of Spears driving with one of her infant sons on her lap), and the singer lost custody and visitation rights with her sons. The pop sensation was also photographed exhibiting what was seen as concerning behaviour, including getting in and out of cars sans underwear several times. This was also around the times when Spears’s “comeback” performance at the 2007 MTV VMAs flopped and when she infamously shaved her head and was photographed attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella—giving rise to the now famous (and truly inconsiderate) touchstone phrase “If Britney can get through 2007, we can make it through this day.”
As Refinery29 points out, things really came to a head in January 2008, when Spears was put on a 5150 hold twice in the same month. According to the Orange County Healthcare Agency, a 5150 hold refers to “the number of the section of the Welfare and Institutions Code which allows an adult who is experiencing a mental health crisis to be involuntarily detained for a 72-hour psychiatric hospitalization when evaluated to be a danger to others, or to himself or herself, or gravely disabled.” One of the aforementioned holds pertained to a custody standoff between Spears and ex-husband Kevin Federline, which resulted in Spears locking herself in a bathroom with one of their sons.
While Spears’s conservatorship was initially meant to be temporary, it was later made permanent and has continued for the past 12 years. At the time of the filing, the court simultaneously issued a restraining order against the singer’s then manager and fiancé, Sam Lutfi, who Spears’s family claimed had “drugged and controlled” the singer. (Lutfi refuted these claims in a 2012 lawsuit against the Spears family.)
Why are people talking about #FreeBritney again?
Twelve years on from the initial granting of the conservatorship (and just over a month before its August 22 deadline), Spears’s life seems to be in a totally different place. Since 2008, the singer has made a comeback musically, releasing hit albums like Circus and Britney Jean and touring around the world. She has also hosted a Vegas residency and been a judge on The X Factor. (Plus, she had an absolutely *iconic* guest spot on Jane the Virgin as herself, a world-famous singer and sworn enemy of Rogelio de la Vega.) In addition, Spears has also regained shared custody of her sons.
Everything was seemingly going great—that is until the past year or so. In January 2019, the pop singer announced that she was cancelling her upcoming Las Vegas residency—the second in her career—for Britney: Domination and taking an “indefinite work hiatus.” The announcement was due, Spears said, to her father’s ailing health. In April 2019, the singer was admitted to a mental health facility for a 30-day stay. While Spears cited ongoing issues with family illness as her reason for checking in, per Vanity Fair, many fans felt the singer was being forced into the facility against her will. Later that month, a group of protesters held a demonstration at West Hollywood City Hall, holdings signs that read “Free Britney” and “Truth Will Set Her Free.” Around the same time, Spears’ lawyer—allegedly due to a disagreement with Jamie Spears over the singer’s conservatorship—resigned as co-conservator, leaving her father as the sole conservator. *Then* just to add gas to the flames, in September 2019, Spears’s father was investigated and then cleared for child abuse after a fight with her youngest son, Sean. The same month, he asked to be temporarily removed as conservator for his daughter. (According to People, the judge allowed Jamie Spears to step down from his role overseeing the singer’s personal life but not her financial life. Instead, Jodi Montgomery, Spears’s “care manager,” was appointed as temporary conservator.) On July 13 of this year, Lynne Spears—the performer’s mom—filed a request in Los Angeles to receive “special notice” on all matters related to her daughter’s finances.
Oh, and there are rumours that in a May 2019 court hearing, Spears herself applied to have the conservatorship ended.
Which is all *a lot* to handle—and then quarantine happened and Spears’s behaviour became kind of erratic. First of all, she burnt her gym down. Like, literally. In an April 29 IGTV video, Spears stood in her home gym, telling fans: “Hi, guys. I’m in my gym right now. I haven’t been in here for like six months because I burned my gym down, unfortunately. I had two candles, and, yeah, one thing led to another, and I burned it down. So, I’m in here, and we only have two pieces of equipment left.”
View this post on Instagram
but yes …. I burnt it down 🙈. I walked past the door to the gym and flames 🔥🔥🔥🔥 BOOM !!!!!! By the Grace of God the alarm 🚨 went off after that and yippy hoorah nobody got hurt 🙏🏼. Unfortunately now I have only two pieces of equipment left lol and a one-sided mirror gym 🙄🙄🙄 !!!!! But it could be much worse so I’m grateful. Pssss I like working out better outside anyways 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸 !!!!
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And, understandably, fans had *a lot* of questions. Like a) How the heck do you burn down an entire gym? and b) Why does Britney look so scared in the video?
Since that post, some fans online have speculated that the singer is sending cries for help via her social media posts, suggesting that the singer is sending secret messages in the captions.
— 👑 (@touchofpisces) July 8, 2020
This is especially applicable to a series of videos Spears recently posted on her Instagram. The singer, who appears to have set up a white sheet in the background, walks back and forth for up to two minutes showing off the same outfit (or a select few). After posting a video of herself in a yellow shirt to TikTok, a fan commented “if you need help wear yellow in your next video.” As Cosmopolitan reports, Spears *did* wear a yellow top in her next video, prompting fans to comment things like “i love you britney we’re gonna get u out.” (Although, as the outlet writes: “This could a coincidence and she possibly didn’t see the comment, or it could be a plea for help.”)
— HIBA هبه (@radicalhiba) July 13, 2020
Another alarming trend fans have noticed is that several of the videos’ captions mention when they were filmed—for example, “Psssss I shot this two night ago” on a June 29 post—which some fans have called out as an odd way of time-stamping the videos. Because why would we need to know when they were filmed?
And potentially the last straw? Recent videos on TikTok that reportedly show the singer’s longtime boyfriend, Sam Asghari, seemingly instructing her under his breath to do things like smile or kiss him.
UPDATE❗️there are now videos going around where you can see her boyfriend Sam controlling her as well! even her own boyfriend is involved in this mess! she cant trust anyone!! #FreeBritneySpears #FreeBritney pic.twitter.com/35wlbsoZ3a
— 🍜🍷 (@pinkcloudie) July 14, 2020
And what’s this about a letter?
As if things couldn’t get anymore bonkers, on July 12, photographer Andrew Gallery, who worked with Spears on the 2008 documentary For The Record, took to TikTok to read what he claims is a letter penned by the singer at that time that talks about the conservatorship and her opinion on it.
@andrewgalleryPART 1: MY TIME WITH @britneyspears ##britneyspears ##freebritney ##fyp ##foryourpage @moonwalkmars♬ original sound – andrewgallery
In a series of videos on the controversial app, Gallery read the alleged letter (which was written in the third person). It stated that in regards to the conservatorship, “She was lied to and set up. Her children were taken away and she did spin out of control, which any mother would in those circumstances.” In addition, the letter stated that the singer “has no rights” and the conservatorship will go on “as long as the people are getting paid…but it doesn’t make it right at all.”
What are celebs saying about #FreeBritney?
While in 2009 the #FreeBritney movement was looked down upon and not publicly supported, this time is different. Since #FreeBritney began trending in July, several prominent celebrities have spoken out in support of the movement and Spears, both publicly and on the DL.
In January, Cher shared a Los Angeles Magazine article about the #FreeBritney movement, tweeting: “POSSIBLE…JUST ENOUGH MEDS TO KEEP HER WORKING, BUT NOT ENOUGH TO HAVE A LIFE.”
— Cher (@cher) January 23, 2020
More recently, in a July 14 Instagram post commemorating the late actor Brittany Murphy, actor Rose McGowan referred to the ongoing #FreeBritney movement, writing: “There’s another Britney on my mind today, too, one that is alive, one that can be saved from the leaches that are controlling and trafficking her. Free all the Britneys and all those who get hurt by the trauma of Hollywood values and toxic ‘rules,’” before adding the #FreeBritney hashtag.
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Brittany Murphy was a lovely, amazing, force of nature. Hollywood did not treat her with the respect she deserved, making her feel less than for not being a ‘typical’ beauty. And I saw what it did to her- it ate her up. Hollywood kills, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, but it kills. Your soul, your mind, your self-esteem, pressure of perfection… it’s endless and twists your mind. I’m so sorry you didn’t make it, Brittany. Your talent deserved better, your soul deserved better. There’s another Britney on my mind today, too, one that is alive, one that can be saved from the leaches that are controlling and trafficking her. Free all the Britneys and all those who get hurt by the trauma of Hollywood values and toxic ‘rules.’ #FreeBritney #BrittanyMurphy 🤍
And celebs like SZA, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Bella Hadid have been liking and commenting on posts about the #FreeBritney movement on Instagram and Twitter.
— Britney Fan (@BritneyHiatus) July 15, 2020
— Britney Fan (@BritneyHiatus) July 11, 2020
What are Britney Spears and her family saying about this?
On July 11, in response to concern over her recent social media posts, Spears took to Instagram to reassure her fans that she’s doing OK—and, most importantly, being herself. “I get how some people might not like my posts or even understand them, but this is Me being happy…..,” Spears wrote, alongside an illustrated image with a quote from the Bible. “This is Me being authentic and as real as it gets!!!!! I want to inspire people to do the same and just be themselves without pleasing others ….. that’s the key to happiness!!!!!!”
View this post on Instagram
I get how some people might not like my posts or even understand them, but this is Me being happy ….. this is Me being authentic and as real as it gets !!!!! I want to inspire people to do the same and just be themselves without pleasing others ….. that’s the key to happiness 🌸🌸🌸🌸 !!!!!!
In a May 2019 article for The Washington Post, Larry Rudolph, Spears’s manager, told the outlet: “The conservatorship is not a jail. It helps Britney make business decisions and manage her life in ways she can’t do on her own right now.”
Then, in a candid interview with The Post published August 1, Jamie Spears described the #FreeBritney movement as “a joke.”
“All these conspiracy theorists don’t know anything. The world don’t have a clue,” he said. “It’s up to the court of California to decide what’s best for my daughter. It’s no one else’s business.”
He also denied the long-standing rumours that he was taking money from Britney’s estate, and expressed how bothered he was by the aggressiveness of #FreeBritney supporters.
“People are being stalked and targeted with death threats,” he said. “It’s horrible. We don’t want those kinds of fans.”
“I love my daughter,” Jamie continued. “I love all my kids. But this is our business. It’s private.”
But, according to a court filing submitted on August 17 in Los Angeles, Britney is “strongly opposed” to having her father return as the sole conservator of her affairs and finances. She now “strongly prefers” that Montgomery (who, if you recall, took over Jamie’s post in September) take over permanently and “strongly prefers to have a qualified corporate fiduciary appointed to serve [as conservator of her estate].”
“Britney is strongly opposed to having James return as conservator of her person. Rather, she strongly prefers to have Ms. Montgomery continue in that role as [she] has done for nearly a year,” the court documents stated. “Without in any way waiving her right to seek termination of this conservatorship in the future, Britney would like Ms. Montgomery’s appointment as conservator of her person to be made permanent.”
Additionally, the documents state Britney “does not want to perform” at this time (which, as TMZ notes, means no Las Vegas residency), and would like to hire a law firm with “substantial expertise in handling contested litigation in a highly complex case such as this one through trial.”
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Why do we need to be careful when talking about #FreeBritney?
While it makes sense that fans would be concerned for Spears given all the chaos surrounding her at the moment—and much of said concern appears to come from a place of love—it’s important that everyone speak and tread carefully when addressing the #FreeBritney movement and Spears herself. Because a lot of what’s happening concerns the singer’s mental health. If there’s nothing nefarious going on (as Spears and several of those closest to her have claimed), then the fact remains that the singer is a woman who is just trying to live her life the best and healthiest way she can, and comments about her “erratic” and “bizarre” behaviour are comments on the state of her personal mental health. So it’s important that fans take this into account when discussing her online.
Regardless of whether these recent incidents are related to the singer’s mental health or are, in fact, a cry for help, one thing remains: “The right to make one’s own financial and personal decisions is crucial to individual liberty and dignity,” Weiss says. “If Britney is now capable and wants to regain control of her finances and other life decisions, she should be supported in her choice.”
So you agree?
A 38 year old Britney Spears shouldn’t be under a 12 year long abusive conservortship put on her for mistakes she made in her mid 20s resulting in a loss of rights, income, and custody of her children… #freebritney pic.twitter.com/JguQ7HZuOh
— bryan ♈︎ #FreeBritney (@bryannspears) July 11, 2020
FLARE has reached out to Edge Publicity—the PR company that represents Spears—for comment. The story will be updated with their response.