The #FreeBritney Movement Didn’t Just Explode Overnight

If you’ve been following #FreeBritney, it was the natural evolution of a movement that has been simmering for a decade. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

On April 22, a swarm of protesters clustered outside of West Hollywood’s City Hall, holding homemade posters with messages like “In Godney We Trust” and “Overprotected Must End!” It was the real-life manifestation of the #FreeBritney movement, an online campaign unofficially started by fan site Breathe Heavy in 2009 under the belief that Britney Spears, the pop star who has scaled the heights and scraped the lows for over 20 years, was being unfairly controlled under a court-ordered conservatorship instituted nearly a dozen years ago following a period of erratic behavior. By 7 p.m., some protesters had moved down the street, where, at Bleu Nails on Santa Monica Boulevard, one patron said they screamed through the windows, “You can get manicures, but Britney can’t without her father’s permission!”

To an outsider observer, the protest may have seemed sudden and reactionary. But if you’ve been following #FreeBritney, it was the natural evolution of a movement that has been simmering for a decade. Ever since Spears made nearly daily headlines for actions that were deemed troubling, like shaving her head and attacking a car with an umbrella, members of the Britney Army have internally rattled around the notion that Spears has become a voiceless victim of a team of lawyers and managers — and, in particular, her dad Jamie Spears, who has been in charge of her finances, business, medication, and just about everything in her life since February 2008 under the conservatorship as her legal guardian — who are not acting out of her best interest. The movement has scrutinized everything from paparazzi photos to Instagram posts, searching for any sign that might indicate Spears is crying out for help and no longer wants to be under the conservatorship.

Over the past month, amid the cancellation of Spears’s Las Vegas residency, her unusual activity on social media, and her recent institutionalization at a mental facility, fans have become increasingly suspicious. And this week, they received what they saw as their biggest clue yet after reports from anonymous sources began to circulate alleging that Spears is seeking some freedom from the conservatorship. During a court hearing that was closed to the media last Friday, and attended by Spears and her parents, the judge ordered an expert to evaluate the conservatorship.

Spears’s conservatorship first began after a second trip to a mental facility in 2008, when her father made a motion to help her get her children back (she’d lost custody after the aforementioned period of unusual behavior) by persuading her to let him handle her affairs. Along with attorney Andrew Wallet, they filed for conservatorship while she was in the hospital and were granted the motion. In November 2008, MTV aired the documentary Britney: For the Record, which many #FreeBritney fans point to as proof that she has always wanted out. “There’s no excitement, there’s no passion,” she says in the doc when asked if her life feels out of control. “Even when you go to jail, you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out. But in this situation, it’s never-ending. It’s just like Groundhog Day every day.”

Theories that the conservatorship was placing inhumane restraints on her began to spread. A 2008 Rolling Stone piece reported on a recording between a friend of Spears’s and a lawyer named Jon Eardley, in which Spears can be heard in the background saying, “I basically just want my life back … I want to be able to drive my car. I want to be able to live in my house by myself. I want to be able to say who’s going to be my security guard.” At one point, she took a ride with a paparazzo to visit the office of attorney Adam Streisand to fight the conservatorship. In 2009, Jordan Miller, the webmaster of Breathe Heavy, which began as a Spears fan site in 2004 and has evolved to encompass many other facets of pop culture, claimed he had received a legal notice from Jamie Spears demanding that he close the site or face an injunction for doing things that fan sites do, like posting song lyrics and using “Ms. Spears’ trademarked name.” Miller, who believes the real issue was that he critiqued the conservatorship on the site, said that Jamie threatened him over the phone: “I will destroy your ass,” he allegedly warned.

The #FreeBritney movement didn’t draw the same sort of attention in the years that followed, and Spears didn’t do much to stoke speculation; those in her close-knit circle rarely comment publicly on her affairs. In 2016, a New York Times report claimed that the conservatorship had loosened in some capacity, becoming more like a “bubble” than a “cage.”

At the start of this year, though, the movement was given a splash of fuel. On Instagram, the social-media account Spears uses most frequently, she posted a photo of herself as a child posing with her parents, along with a long caption explaining that she would be canceling her “Britney: Domination” Las Vegas residency, which was set to debut in February. “I’ve been looking forward to this show and seeing all of you this year, so doing this breaks my heart,” she wrote. “However, it’s important to always put your family first … and that’s the decision I had to make.” She explained that her father had recently been hospitalized and almost died, and that she needed time to be with her family. Reps said his colon had ruptured.

What ensued was a series of events, and nonevents, that set off alarms among fans. There was the fact that Spears, who is typically active on social media, went silent soon after her tour announcement. Then, in March, co-conservator Wallet filed a request to the court to have his name removed from the conservatorship, claiming that harm would befall Spears if this were not done. Finally, on April 3, Britney broke her Insta-silence, posting a slogan that read, “Fall in love with taking care of yourself, mind, body, spirit,” and captioning it, “We all need to take time for a little ‘me time.’ :)” (It was unusual, fans said, for Spears to use a smiley face instead of her preferred emoji.) Later that day, TMZ reported that she had checked into a mental facility seven days prior for a 30-day stay.

The discourse reached a fever pitch on April 16, when the podcast Britney’s Gram, hosted by comedians Tess Barker and Babs Gray, aired a voice-mail from an anonymous paralegal who claimed to have worked on Spears’s conservatorship and had left the firm two weeks earlier. “What is happening is disturbing, to say the least,” said the man. The mysterious tipster claimed that Spears had been in rehearsal for “Domination” when she began to refuse to take her medication, prompting her father to pull her from the show and have her instead blame it on his illness. The source also asserted that Spears had been in the mental-health facility since the beginning of the year, against her will, contradicting the TMZ report that she’d voluntarily started treatment only a week before. He also said that she was promised that the conservatorship would come to an end in 2009 after her “Circus” tour but that it didn’t, causing her to have another mental breakdown soon after. (Barker and Gray maintain that they independently vetted the source and found him credible.)

The podcast got close to 100,000 listens on SoundCloud. It was a bombshell revelation for Spears’s fans, who also pointed out that her mother and boyfriend had allegedly begun liking social-media posts tied to #FreeBritney. But another segment of the Britney fan base remained cautious about armchair-diagnosing Spears, reasoning that she might very well be in need of medication and a conservatorship, which had been granted, after all, to help her. Gray counters, “We can’t convince anybody, but we believe that enough things add up that it’s certainly not out of reason that someone would be taking advantage of this woman for her money and that they’ve been doing it for a long time.”

The division between the two camps boils down to one thing: whether you think Spears should still be in a conservatorship. Spears is under what’s defined as a probate conservatorship, which does not allow Jamie to force her into a mental-health facility. The relative freedom granted those under probate conservatorships explains why she was able to take a day or two off during her recent hospitalization to go to the salon and to spend time with her boyfriend, Sam Asghari, on Easter. What makes Spears’s conservatorship unique is that she has continued to fiscally thrive while subject to it. “It’s the only known conservatorship, as long as conservatorships have been around in this country, where someone is worth as much as she is and actively making as much as she is and still under her conservatorship,” explains attorney Tamar Arminak, a family lawyer to Amanda Bynes, who has been under conservatorship since 2014. “It’s absolutely the unicorn of conservatorships.”

“All conservatees,” though, “feel confined,” Arminak continues. “They all feel at some point they don’t need this anymore. ‘I’m doing well enough, I’m 37, I’m 38, I don’t need someone to make these decisions for me.’ But there’s a reason for that. If doctors have found that Britney needs to continue to be on medication to be well, then it’s a problem when a conservatee decides they don’t need to take medication anymore.”

Though Spears has mostly remained silent as the #FreeBritney movement has grown louder, she returned to Instagram the day after the campaign descended on West Hollywood, posting a short video of herself along with an extended caption addressing the situation. “Hi guys! Just checking in with all of you who are concerned about me. All is well,” she wrote. “My family has been going through a lot of stress and anxiety lately, so I just needed time to deal. But don’t worry, I’ll be back very soon.”

The caption went on, “I wanted to say hi, because things that are being said have just gotten out of control!!! Wow!!! There’s rumors, death threats to my family and my team, and just so many things crazy things being said.” (Spears was apparently referring to the backlash that her sister Jamie Lynn Spears had received for defending her on her own social accounts.) “Don’t believe everything you read and hear.” (Some fans believe this was all ghostwritten by someone in management.)

Days after Spears slowed the momentum of the #FreeBritney movement with her Instagram post, she was released from the mental-health facility. Headlines blared, “Britney’s back, bitch!,” and fan wars simmered. Spears resumed her Instagram activity with videos of herself doing yoga to Cardi B’s “I Like It” and posing during a photo shoot. Then, after the court hearing on Friday fans once again grew alarmed. In what appeared like an about-face from Spears’s post claiming “all is well,” there were photos of her leaving the courtroom barefoot, and reports suggesting that she was seeking freedom from the conservatorship. Meanwhile, her longtime manager, Larry Rudolph, has conjectured that she may never perform again. An additional hearing is set for September, with the mental-health evaluation pending. Until then, speculation will only intensify.

The #FreeBritney Movement Didn’t Just Explode Overnight