#FreeBritney Movement Invades Los Angeles: ‘She Can’t Be Herself Under This Conservatorship’
Pop icon Britney Spears’ father, Jamie, appeared in an LA court Wednesday for a hearing about the pop star’s conservatorship—attracting many #FreeBritney protesters.
On Wednesday afternoon, a few dozen protesters gathered outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, brandishing hot-pink signs with unusual slogans: “The conservator is TOXIC,” “HYBRID BUSINESS MODEL?” and “Where there is smoke, there is fire!” The agitators were there as part of the #FreeBritney movement—a campaign first hailed as an internet joke, then as a serious concern, then as a joke again, then as a scandal, and now as some inscrutable combo, both online and off-line, ironic and completely earnest. They were there to protest a hearing where Britney Spears’ father, Jamie, was scheduled to appear—a man they believe coerced and manipulated the 37-year-old Grammy-award-winning pop star into a legal conservatorship that’s lasted 11 years.
“Britney Spears inspired me to take my first dance class,” said Simon Schuh, a freckly dance major at USC. “I watched her video ‘Me Against the Music’ at age five, when it came out, and I was blown away. I took my first ballet class after that. Ever since then I’ve been following her career and kind of honing in on her every move. She not only inspired me to dance but come out as gay and just be myself, and unfortunately, she can’t be herself under this conservatorship.”
A conservatorship is a court-supervised process whereby the court appoints a third party to be in charge of the health and financial affairs of another person—typically an older person no longer able to care for themselves or someone with severe disabilities. Spears has been in a conservatorship since 2008 after a bout of erratic behavior: shaving her head, driving with a baby in her lap, losing custody of her kids, entering a psych ward twice, repeatedly speaking in a British accent. Her conservatorship is unusual because Spears is young, has continued working full-time, and is worth nearly $60 million, according to court records from 2018.
Wednesday, the people involved in that conservatorship, including Spears’ father, his legal team, Spears’ mother Lynne, her legal team, Spears’ temporary conservator, and her court-appointed counsel, met before Judge Brenda J. Penny to discuss the singer’s children, business information, and health concerns. The courtroom was cleared before the hearing began in earnest, and a minute order from the proceedings revealed little of what it involved. But before the courtroom was closed, Spears’ court-appointed lawyer mentioned that he intended to discuss the singer’s 730 evaluation—a parental competence examination that was ordered by Judge Penny at a hearing in May. Outside, protesters chanted with ambiguous irony: “What do we want? Free Britney! When do we want it? Now!”
The hearing also comes on the heels of a restraining order filed in August against Spears’ father for allegedly abusing one of the singer’s kids. Yesterday, Ventura County prosecutors announced they would not be pressing charges.
“I think the key thing here is that conservatorships are supposed to be for people who are gravely disabled,” said Tess Barker, a young blonde woman in a green polo dress who helped found the #FreeBritney movement. “I have a family member that is minor but will have to be conserved when he’s 18 because of a mental issue. But what we see from Britney Spears publicly is that she’s able to learn complicated choreography, tour the world, have a Vegas residency, release several albums, be a judge on a reality show. None of those things are in line with what I think of when I think of a gravely disabled person.”
The #FreeBritney movement emerged out of a podcast called Britney’s Gram, hosted by Barker and her co-host, L.A. comedian Barbara Gray. They started the show as a lighthearted bit unpacking the pop star’s Instagram. But after a series of slightly unusual developments over the past year, the pair began digging into the terms of the conservatorship.
The first came in late 2018, when one of Britney’s two conservators, Andrew Wallet (the other being her father), filed a motion with the court requesting a substantial raise. His rationale: the singer’s increased income had added responsibility. He called the conservatorship, as #FreeBritney proponents like to quote, a “hybrid business model.” The court granted a salary increase to $426,000 a year. Second, in January, the singer put her Las Vegas residency, Domination—set to start in February—on an “indefinite hiatus.” Third, in March, Wallet resigned, insisting that the conservatorship had several business activities requiring “immediate attention.” He warned that if his notice was not accepted “immediately and without delay,” then “substantial detriment, irreparable harm and immediate danger” would befall the singer. Last, in April it was reported that Spears had been checked into a mental institution. That same month, Barker and Gray uploaded a “special emergency episode” in which they play a voicemail left on their hotline from a paralegal who worked with an attorney involved in Spears’ conservatorship. He told them they “were onto something.”
“What is happening is disturbing, to say the least,” the anonymous voice claimed. “Basically, Britney was in rehearsals for Domination. It came to Jamie’s attention that Britney was not taking her medication as prescribed. She was missing a lot of doses and just full-on not taking them. So they got her to the doctor and the doctor said, ‘OK, if you don’t want these medications, let’s get you on a new one.’ She refused to take the new one. Jamie said, ‘Either you take this medication or the show’s off, and I’m pulling my support and you can’t do it.’ Britney did not follow Jamie’s instructions, so he was true to his word—he pulled the show, he verbatim said, ‘Blame it on my illness.’ He even claimed that Britney did not willingly enter the wellness facility.”
The episode went viral; the hashtag was trending on Twitter within hours. Six days later, fans organized a protest outside West Hollywood City Hall. It snowballed from there. In June, Spears’ father sued a #FreeBritney blogger, Anthony Elia, for defamation.“I first heard about #FreeBritney back in April, when the podcast dropped—the one with the voicemail,” said Junior Olivas, one of the protest organizers who has been involved since April. “I was like, ‘OK, something’s fishy here’... I went to Britney’s mother’s Instagram, and I wrote, ‘Give Britney back her freedom, her voice and her life.’ And Britney’s mom liked my comment—with the hashtag #FreeBritney, by the way. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, OK, whoa. There’s more to this than what they are saying.’”
At the protest on Wednesday, participants came armed with stickers, buttons, and giant fliers outlining their case. Some claims are more factual than others. They allege that Spears was denied the right to hire her own attorney. That’s true—in 2008, Spears tried twice to hire an outside lawyer; her court-appointed counsel deemed her unfit to hire her own representative. But the flier also claims that “multiple psychiatrists have determined the conservatorship to be unnecessary” (due to HIPA protections, none of Spears’ medical records have been released), and that “financial statements show evidence of money laundering” (in a separate 2009 case, a lawyer Spears had attempted to hire made claims of theft, but was never legally involved in the conservatorship and did not furnish evidence of his allegations in court).
According to Olivas, a twentysomething guy with a diamond earring and goatee, the rallies are planned in a large group chat on Instagram. Like most of the members, Olivas has been a Spears fan since he was a kid. “Since age 11,” he said. “I traded in my Pokemon cards to one of my cousin’s friends for the ...Baby One More Time album, because I didn’t want to bum from my parents to buy it for me.”
At one point, an attorney in glasses and a Snoopy tie paused by the display. He introduced himself as Jeff Condon, an estate-planning lawyer who has practiced in Santa Monica for 32 years and specializes in conservatorships, among other things. After checking out the fliers, Condon got into a debate with a protester—a redhead who declined to give her name. “I was just telling this very nice young lady that if Britney is consenting to the conservatorship, and she has counsel and they get together and say, ‘Yeah, things have been going pretty well, the finances are being handled so she can focus on her career,’ then [there’s no] issue,” Condon said, going on to argue that if Spears wanted out of her conservatorship she could contest it. “I think it would be a tough row to hoe to suggest that she’s being detained to the point that she can’t communicate with the outside world.”