ENTERTAINMENT
07/09/2020 07:58 BST | Updated 23/06/2021 12:01 BST

Britney Spears: What Exactly Is The #FreeBritney Movement?

The singer is about to speak in court about the legal conservatorship that has been in place since 2008.

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You’ve probably heard rumblings about the #FreeBritney movement over the past few years, but what actually is it? 

Even Britney Spears herself appears to have shown support for the movement – which inspired the documentary Framing Britney Spears – in recent times.

With Britney set to address a US court on Wednesday about the legal conservatorship she’s been under for more than a decade, here’s a look back at the story so far...

What is the #FreeBritney movement?

The #FreeBritney movement was set up by one of Britney’s biggest fans in 2009 when Jordan Miller, owner of the Breathe Heavy fansite, began a campaign to ‘free Britney’ from her conservatorship.

This conservatorship, which she has been placed under since 2008, severely restricts her movement and her ability to control her own finances, namely her estate, which are under the control of her father, Jamie Spears.

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A #FreeBritney protest in Los Angeles.

What Jordan began grew into a movement. The protests staged in Los Angeles draw attention to the conservatorship, which many fans believe is an injustice. 

Fresh life was breathed into the movement in early 2019, following reports the singer had checked herself into a mental health facility

Thousands began using the #FreeBritney hashtag on social media after fan podcast Britney’s Gram reportedly received an anonymous call from a man claiming to be a paralegal working on Spears’s conservatorship, who appeared to validate fears she had been pressured into entering the facility.

Following the call, fans speculated about the singer’s safety and current whereabouts, given she hadn’t posted anything new on social media in an unusually long time.

Then it all took off: Miley Cyrus name-checked the #FreeBritney campaign in a live gig, which went viral and the campaign group also met physically for a giant protest in July 2020 outside the Hollywood City Hall where Britney supporters brandished placards.

Back up a minute, what is a legal conservatorship exactly?

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A supporter of Britney Spears gathers with others outside a courthouse in downtown LA for a #FreeBritney protest as a hearing regarding singer's conservatorship is in session on July 22, 2020.

An American legal proposition; a conservatorship is when another individual is given control of a person’s finances, including their estate, as well as most aspects of their daily life.

According to one Change.org petition which has gained over 100,000 signatures, the ruling means Britney is not allowed to drive, hang out with friends, vote, or spend any of her money without gaining permission from her father, her conservator.

The idea is that a conservatorship is put in place to manage the affairs of people with physical or mental limitations, or people that are too unwell to manage their lives themselves.

I didn’t realise she was unwell?

Well that’s kind of the point the fans argue. They say that this is a cynical ploy by people with power around Britney to control her finances, and potentially make more money from her, rather than being actually in the singer’s best interests.

“There are a lot of people who make money because of the money that Britney makes,” Barbara Gray, one half of the Britney’s Gram podcast team explained to Buzzfeed News. “It would be in their favour to control that money in a certain way.”

Britney herself rarely comments on her own situation or her mental health, which is why her Instagram post on April 2019 made headlines. “My situation is unique, but I promise I’m doing what’s best at this moment,” she said. “What I need right now is a little bit of privacy to deal with all the hard things that life is throwing my way.”

But Britney’s father Jamie Spears has maintained the role of conservator to Britney since 2008 despite the backlash, with the exception of a short period in 2019 after he fell ill. Last year he defended the court ruling in a rare interview.

In July 2020, he said: “The world don’t have a clue. It’s up to the court of California to decide what’s best for my daughter. It’s no one else’s business.”

“People are being stalked and targeted with death threats. It’s horrible. We don’t want those kinds of fans,” he continued, criticising the approach of some people from within the #FreeBritney movement. “I love my daughter. I love all my kids. But this is our business. It’s private.”

So how unwell is Britney exactly?

Britney had been behaving in ways the courts may have deemed irrational since around 2004, when she gained an annulment after a 55-hour marriage because she “lacked understanding of her actions,” according to one court document.

The story escalated around 2007 when Britney attacked a car window with an umbrella shortly after shaving off her hair, which was all caught by on camera by paparazzi. 

Following the erratic behaviour, Britney was sent to see psychiatrists, and the court ordered a conservatorship in 2008, which was given to her father Jamie.

In recent years, fans have shared concern over the singer’s Instagram updates, which frequently show the singer at home, often singing and dancing, but speaking in a frantic way and seeming disconnected.

Why is the #FreeBritney movement back in the press?

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The #FreeBritney campaign has gathered pace in recent weeks.

Over a year since the reported anonymous call from a paralegal claiming Britney had been pressured into entering a mental health facility, the #FreeBritney campaign is again in the press.

Over the past 18 months or so, there have been various major updates to the story, the first of which being Britney’s father speaking out.

As we mentioned before, Jamie Spears takes issue with the #FreeBritney movement. He called it a “joke” and a “conspiracy theory” in his Page Six interview published in August this year, which has inflamed the feelings of the movement against her conservatorship.

But Britney herself has reportedly been seeking removal from the conservatorship since last year.

According to a source who spoke to CNN at the annual court hearing in 2019, Britney requested the judge end her conservatorship.

“Of course she wants it to end, because she’s not of the right mental state to understand her issues,” said the anonymous source. “She has a mental illness and that doesn’t mean she needs to be locked up. It puts her somewhere in the middle. She’s working on it. It’s a struggle on a daily basis.”

Then came some proper clarity...

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Supporters of Britney Spears gather outside a courthouse in downtown LA for a #FreeBritney protest as a hearing regarding the singer's conservatorship takes place.

In September 2020, Britney’s legal position was made crystal clear, after her attorney, Samuel D. Inham III reportedly filed documents to the Los Angeles Superior Court reading: “At this point in her life when she is trying to regain some measure of personal autonomy, Britney welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans.”

The statement, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, is significant, because it appeared to confirm Britney’s support for the #FreeBritney movement.

It also clarifies how Britney is seeking at least a change to the conservatorship, which was temporarily signed over to Britney’s sister Jamie Lynn in 2019 after her father briefly became ill. Jamie has been a trustee of Britney’s estate since 2018 so has some say over her finances, and in an August 2020 court filing Jamie Lynn asked for control of money stored in a trust fund for Britney’s children, so she has been getting progressively more involved.

“Although the sealing motion is supposedly for her ‘protection,’ Britney herself is vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret,” continued her attorney in the court filing. 

“Far from being a conspiracy theory or a ‘joke’ as James reportedly told the media, in large part this scrutiny is a reasonable and even predictable result of James’ aggressive use of the sealing procedure over the years to minimise the amount of meaningful information made available to the public,” Inham III said.

The court hearing for the request to change the conservatorship from its current status to a ‘voluntary’ conservatorship, which would allow the singer to nominate her own conservator, took place on 10 November 2020. However, Jamie was not suspended from his role

During the hearing at a court in Los Angeles, Britney’s attorney told the court she has a fraught relationship with her father, claiming she had told him “on many occasions” that she is “afraid” of him.

He also said the case is now at a crossroads, as Britney and her father have no “viable working relationship” and have not spoken to one another in a “long while”.

Jamie’s attorney, Vivian Thoreen, dismissed this testimony, claiming the reason Jamie had not spoken to his daughter was because Britney’s attorney had asked him not to.

Thoreen also said it would be “extraordinary” to replace Jamie as Britney’s conservator, saying that under his guidance, the star’s estate has gone from being the subject of tens of millions of dollars of lawsuits to being worth $60 million (£45 million).

In court filings, Britney said she wanted private wealth management firm the Bessemer Trust appointed as “sole conservator”, but Judge Penny only agreed to make the firm co-conservator of the case, with Jamie’s role remaining and the judge stating that she would hear that part of the case at a later date. 

The court also heard that Britney will no longer perform as long as her father is still in charge of her estate.

So what next?

Britney’s conservatorship faced renewed scrutiny following the release of the documentary, Framing Britney Spears, in February 2021.

The New York Times-produced film unpacked whether or not the court-ordered conservatorship is warranted and how it began in the first place. It also delved into the the #FreeBritney movement and the way the singer was treated by the press at the height of her fame.

While the documentary has proved hugely popular, Britney herself seemed less impressed that her personal life was once again making headlines.

A post shared on her Instagram page weeks after the documentary’s release said: “My life has always been very speculated [about]... [I’ve been] watched… and judged really my whole life… I’ve always been so judged... insulted... and embarrassed by the media... and I still am till this day…

“I didn’t watch the documentary but from what I did see of it I was embarrassed by the light they put me in... I cried for two weeks and well… I still cry sometimes!!!!”

A subsequent documentary made by the BBC was also lambasted on Britney’s Instagram page, in a post which accused those in charge of the films of “hypocrisy”.

The post read: “These documentaries are so hypocritical… they criticise the media and then do the same thing????? Damn… I don’t know y’all but I’m thrilled to remind you all that although I’ve had some pretty tough times in my life... I’ve had waaaayyyy more amazing times in my life and unfortunately my friends… I think the world is more interested in the negative!!!!

“I mean… isn’t this supposed to be a business and society about THE FUTURE???? Why highlight the most negative and traumatising times in my life from forever ago???? I mean DAMN…”

At a hearing in February 2021 – just days after the US release of Framing Britney Spears – a judge ruled against Jamie Spears, who lost a bid to retain the power to delegate investment powers for the estate.

Britney is now set to address a US court about the arrangement at a hearing on Wednesday 23 June, where it’s expected her father’s role as conservator will be discussed in detail.

She last spoke in court about the matter in May 2019, but the judge cleared the room for that hearing. At the time of writing, it’s not known whether Britney’s latest comments will be made publicly. 

It’s also been widely reported that she will not attend the hearing in person, but will appear via video-link.