The anticipation was mounting as #FreeBritney L.A. leader Kevin Wu stood among hundreds of Britney Spears fans outside of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse on Nov. 12, waiting to hear whether the pop star would be set free from her 13-year conservatorship. After countless rallies, protests, and social media campaigns calling for Spears’ release, word finally reached the masses and confetti cannons painted the asphalt rainbow: Spears was free. “I was just losing my mind,” Wu — a data analyst by day — tells Rolling Stone. “It was rewarding to see that our years of advocacy had finally paid off.”
Wu is just one of the hundreds of Spears aficionados worldwide who count themselves as part of the group behind the hashtag #FreeBritney — made up of a large faction of the pop star’s fans along with others outraged by her situation — who’s long advocated for Spears’ release from her conservatorship. While Spears’ father, Jamie, called the group a “joke” and a “conspiracy theory” when he was still in control of her finances, the pop star credited them with helping free her from her dad’s control by raising awareness of her case. “I have no words … because of you guys and your constant resilience in freeing me from my conservatorship … my life is now in that direction,” Spears tweeted in October after her dad was suspended as her conservator at the end of September. “I cried last night for two hours cause my fans are the best and I know it.”
Still, more than two months after that fateful day — as new legislation moves forward dedicated to overhauling conservatorship law in California thanks to Spears’ case, and rogue stans unleash their venom on Spears’ sister, Jamie Lynn, and her controversial memoir — #FreeBritney’s advocacy work is not done, members say.
“We accomplished our initial goal, but as the movement acquired more knowledge about the whole system, we evolved,” says Leanne Simmons, one of the leaders of #FreeBritney L.A. “Now, there’s a larger goal ahead of us: To change the system so that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
“It’s Time to Reclaim the Legacy That She Built”
The 13 years of Spears’ conservatorship — which followed a number of public troubles in 2008 — were filled with their share of twists and turns. She went on tour, hosted and canceled a Las Vegas residency, served as a judge on The X-Factor, and declared an “indefinite work hiatus” in 2019 — all while her father legally controlled her assets, valued at $60 million. At the time, fans started to become concerned about their idol after she began sharing strange posts, including a video in which she rocked back and forth while wearing thick-lined mascara and selfies in which she seemed distraught. But it wasn’t until an anonymous tip about her well-being was sent to a Spears stan account podcast called Britney’s Gram — which analyzed her Instagram posts — that fans started to actively raise awareness about her situation, even starting Change.org and White House petitions (with more than 250,000 signatures combined) clamoring for the freedom of Britney Spears.
Since the start of the movement, the hashtag #FreeBritney has become a household name and led thousands of people to gather for rallies and protests, all in the name of Spears. And, over the past year, Spears’ case advanced swiftly, thanks in part to her June appearance in court, where she addressed Judge Brenda Penny directly and accused Jamie — who has become a villain in the eyes of Spears’ supporters — of conservatorship abuse. “I’ve lied and told the whole world I’m OK and I’m happy. It’s a lie. … I am traumatized,” she said at the time. Just months later, in September, Jamie was removed as her conservator and, in November, Spears’ conservatorship was terminated altogether.
Still, all the loose ends are far from tied up, as the legal aftermath of Spears’ conservatorship is making its way through the court process. For her fans — and her attorney Mathew Rosengart, who did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment — the fight is no longer for her freedom but for justice, and it is just beginning.
At a Jan. 19 hearing, lawyers for Spears and her father duked it out after Jamie requested that she continue to pay his legal fees, despite the conservatorship’s termination. For now, the attorneys will return to court on July 27, after they finish their discovery and arrive ready to set a date for trial to go over Britney’s objections to outstanding fees. Rosengart may also seek on-the-record testimony about claims that Jamie oversaw a surveillance program that bugged Britney’s room. A New York Times report in September alleged that he had been monitoring his daughter’s communications without consent. (His attorneys have denied said claims.)
#FreeBritney activist Kevin Wu and protesters are seen at the #FreeBritney Termination Rally at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse on November 12, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.
Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images
A faction of legal experts have taken it upon themselves to keep #FreeBritney — and the public — informed via the Twitter account @BritneyLawArmy, posting updates and parsing documents and hearings in both English and Spanish. And they’ve achieved their goal; the account has amassed more than 57,000 followers, including journalists and reporters from international outlets such as The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and NBC News. And, at Spears’ termination hearing last November, the army’s soldiers even scooped reporters, tweeting the news that “SHE’S FREE” before any outlet. Aside from hearings, they provide easily digestible analyses of court documents and make educated inferences about what could be next in Spears’ case. And even though the conservatorship has ended, the account continues to keep folks updated on what’s going on in Spears’ continued legal battle.
“If you had a wish list, you would’ve said freeing Britney is the most important thing,’” says Linsey Shrewsbury, one of the lawyers behind the account on Twitter. “But that’s not where it ends. Now it’s time to help her reclaim the legacy that she built.”
For Shrewsbury, the next goal is ensuring Spears regains control of her finances and the future of her career — and also holding any bad players in her conservatorship accountable, primarily those in her family and her former management company, TriStar, which have been criticized by Spears’ own attorney for their alleged misdoings.
“The only thing we can do, since she is free, is to go through the documents and find the truth behind it all,” says Raven Koontz, a legal assistant with the Twitter account. That means lining up what’s shown in the documents and the information that’s been divulged to the public to provide fans with clarity on what the truth really is. “The whole point of the movement was finding the truth behind the abuses of the conservatorship,” she adds.
Along with Spears herself, her attorney Rosengart has praised the movement and its efforts in disseminating information about the case and drawing awareness to the issues with it. “I think the support of the #FreeBritney movement has been instrumental,” Rosengart said in a press conference following a September hearing. “To the extent that it allowed my firm to carry the ball across the finish line. I thank them.”
As Spears’ case progresses, the @BritneyLawArmy has positioned itself as a leader in keeping the #FreeBritney community — and others simply interested in her case — informed by ensuring accurate information about Spears is shared online. “It all comes down to her getting her money back and righting any wrongs that were done to her,” adds attorney Sam Nicholson, who founded the account. “We want to see her free and made whole again: both emotionally and financially.”
“That Bond With Britney Can Lead to This Sort of Herd Mentality”
While #FreeBritney had largely been a tool for good, there is a downside: Stan accounts — some anonymous and others featuring Spears as their profile picture — who use the movement as an excuse to attack people they perceive to be Spears’ enemies. Most recently, their target has been her younger sister, Jamie Lynn, who released a memoir, Things I Should Have Said, on Jan. 19.
Just the other week, Spears and Jamie Lynn feuded online as the pop star accused her younger sister of using her name to sell books. Spears’ attorney even sent Jamie Lynn a cease-and-desist letter. Inevitably, every time Spears spoke out against her sister in front of her 56 million Twitter followers, thousands of nasty, often threatening messages came Jamie Lynn’s way.
Some of the hateful comments told her to “rot in hell” and described her as a “horrible, talentless, evil bitch,” and some even included links to unemployment applications. But among the worst messages were the ones she received in her DMs. “Now it’s getting harder for me to rationalize to my oldest daughter why our family continues to get death threats, as a result of their aunt’s vague and accusatory posts, especially when we know she could tell the truth, and put an end to all of it in one second if she wanted to,” Jamie Lynn wrote in an Instagram statement last week.
The behavior isn’t surprising, though, says Dr. Shira Gabriel, a professor of social psychology at the University of Buffalo. This type of reaction from fans can sometimes occur when people build a strong “parasocial bond” with a celebrity like Spears. “These relationships feel as real as the relationships we have in our lives, and because they feel that way, we treat them that way,” Gabriel says.
And having the luxury of doing so behind a screen makes it even easier, adds Dr. J. Scott Jordan, chair of psychology at Illinois State University. “There are these social connections we share in face-to-face communication that tend to keep us from being really, really hostile to other people,” he explains. “When we get to the online environment, however, we don’t see that other person, so any shame, any empathy we might feel because we hurt someone, we don’t experience because we’re not seeing you.”
Britney Spears supporters march outside a hearing concerning the pop singer’s conservatorship at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Being part of a collective — such as the #FreeBritney movement — can also lead people to form an allegiance to the group and minimize individual thinking. “That bond with Britney can lead to this sort of herd mentality where you don’t humanize the people who dislike her,” explains Gabriel. “You dehumanize the people who you see as being ‘on the other side.’ “
For movement leaders like #FreeBritney L.A.’s Wu and @BritneyLawArmy’s Nicholson, these “bad actors” contribute to a negative image for a movement that, they say, was built on love for Spears.
“I don’t condone vitriol like that,” says Wu, but opines that applying pressure on folks like Jamie Lynn online is necessary. “I think that it’s deplorable that Jamie Lynn is going on this book tour. I believe that it’s part of the strategy to paint Britney in a bad light, and I think the movement is doing the right thing by calling her out for it.”
For Nicholson, there’s a distinction between stans spewing hatred and those being productive and pushing for change. “I think you can see the difference between [the two],” he says. “A Britney fan approaches criticism of Jamie Lynn from an emotional standpoint, whereas #FreeBritney people are very sophisticated. … If they take issue with something Jamie Lynn said, they come from an objective standpoint and point out inconsistencies.”
He adds: “The #FreeBritney movement is a rare case study of social media, a particularly toxic echo chamber, being used for positive change. I think we’ll be looking for ways to re-create that for advocacy in different areas.”
“These Issues Were Bigger Than Britney”
Aside from Spears’ battles in court — and the one raging among fans — some #FreeBritney folks are looking at the bigger picture: conservatorship law.
While the number of conservatees in Spears’ home state of California is unclear due to lack of self-reports from some of its biggest counties, data from the Department of Healthcare Services shows that more than 3,600 people were under permanent conservatorships in the state in 2020. Spears’ case, thanks in part to the #FreeBritney movement, shined a light on how easy it is for conservatees to be taken advantage of under the current system.
As such, another group of #FreeBritney advocates is using the momentum of her case to take aim at conservatorship as a whole in California. Currently, it’s not all that difficult for California courts to place people — typically elderly, mentally ill, or disabled folks — under strict financial and often personal control of a person appointed by a probate court judge, sometimes a family member.
Assembly member Brian Maienschein, for one, was inspired by Spears, and on Jan. 29 introduced the Probate Conservatorship Reform and Supported Decision-Making Act, a bill aimed at reforming the system in California. Maienschein, who served as a clerk at a probate court before becoming a legislator, says that reforming law surrounding guardianship has always been an important issue to him. Spears’ case made it a priority. “The case activated people who had never heard of this before,” he says. “I think her situation would have turned out much differently had my bill been in place.”
Maienschein called on leaders of #FreeBritney L.A., including Wu and Simmons, to help draft the bill, which would present “supportive decision-making” as an alternative for conservatorships, require courts to prove that a conservatorship is the last resort for a conservatee, and also make it easier for conservatorships to be dissolved.
“It’s going to make sure that conservatees know and understand their rights,” Maienschein says. “Britney Spears said that she wasn’t aware of what her rights were.” (During her bombshell court speech last summer, Spears said she “didn’t know” she could petition to end her conservatorship.) “Just having that at the initial process makes sure that these decisions are more educated, more thought out, and ultimately more beneficial for everyone,” Maienschein adds.
The #FreeBritney activists and their expertise were crucial in the bill-creation process, according to the assemblyman. And — aided by state disability-rights activists — the #FreeBritney folks’ ability to raise awareness for an issue often ignored will be indispensable moving forward, says Maienschien. “They saw what happened to Britney Spears and were moved by that,” says the legislator. “They’re going to be necessary to move this through the finish line.”
For Simmons, who’s dedicated much of her free time to #FreeBritney, getting the bill signed into law is an absolute priority. She says that she and other activists met with leaders of Southern California’s Disability Voices United and “realized that these issues were bigger than Britney.” “If we join forces, we can be that much stronger and have a better chance at making change,” she says. “You need a lot of people to pay attention in order to make change. We’ve met with advocates who want to reform the system and their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. There wasn’t enough public pressure. That’s what we bring to the table.”
It will be months before the state Assembly takes a vote on the bill, which has not yet faced opposition. Legislators will discuss the bill, numbered AB1663, at a policy-committee hearing in March or April.
“It’s Up to Britney Now”
With a bill promising sweeping changes to conservatorship law hanging in the balance, a seemingly endless feud between the Spears sisters still in the mix, and Spears’ own legal proceedings upcoming in the next several months, hashtag #JusticeForBritney has become the new #FreeBritney.
From Wu’s perspective, while the confetti cannons and celebrations are now a thing of the past, he remains hopeful for what’s to come in both legislative advances for conservatorships and positive changes in Spears’ future. Will she do a tell-all interview with Oprah? Release new music? Retire completely? “It’s up to Britney now,” he says.
“We were advocating for her freedom and we want her to do whatever she wants with her career: Whether it’s making music and performing or retiring altogether,” Wu says. He then admits, “But it’s fine to get excited about the possibilities now that she is free.”
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