The #FreeBritney movement finds its moment: ‘All the hard work was worth it’

Friday’s liberation of Britney Spears from her nearly 14-year conservatorship was a landmark moment for the pop star. It was also a once-unimaginable triumph for the #FreeBritney movement, the fan-led campaign that was largely dismissed by the public and that Spears’s father had called a “joke” run by “conspiracy theorists”.

Fans had been pushing to “free Britney” from the conservatorship for years, but the movement took off in 2019. With full-time jobs and no professional organizing background, they took it upon themselves to investigate the arrangement that controlled Spears’s life, scouring the star’s social media posts for clues, examining court documents, organizing online and holding demonstrations outside court hearings and concerts to raise awareness of what was going on.

#FreeBritney organizers, many of whom have been fans for more than 20 years, say they were concerned about the conservatorship from the beginning but that it wasn’t until allegations emerged on a 2019 podcast that Spears had been held against her will in a mental health facility that efforts gained steam.

Gregg Donovan, a famous Hollywood greeter, joins the #FreeBritney supporters outside the courthouse in Los Angeles.
Gregg Donovan, a famous Hollywood greeter, joins the #FreeBritney supporters outside the courthouse in Los Angeles. Photograph: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock

Initially, Chris Rocha, a #FreeBritney advocate based in Fresno, said, people didn’t take it seriously. “I’m a 34-year-old man, I have a normal life, I have a normal job. In the beginning a lot of people would laugh,” he said.

“We were called conspiracy theorists. People just thought we were speculating and were like, ‘Why are you obsessed with this?’” said Melanie Mandarano, a member of #FreeBritney LA.

A security firm hired by Spears’s father, Jamie, reportedly investigated the group, sending infiltrators to their rallies, and issuing a “threat assessment report” of the fans. A lawyer for the firm, Black Box, said it was “proud of their work in keeping Ms Spears safe” and had operated “within professional, ethical and legal bounds”.

But perception of the movement began to shift earlier this year with the release of the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears, which examined the conservatorship and sexist treatment by the media. The documentary also took a closer look at the #FreeBritney movement, spotlighting their allegations of abuse and interviewing organizers.

“It did such a great job of reframing the way we look at Britney and creating some sympathy for her and showing how wrong it was the way she was treated. It showed these people how we are fighting for her,” said Leanne Simmons, a #FreeBritney organizer who was featured in the documentary. “This is a human rights issue.”

‘Part of me wished we were wrong’

The new attention on Spears’s case eventually led to major changes, including her father’s suspension and Friday’s ultimate dissolution of the arrangement that controlled Spears’s estate, career and aspects of her personal life. It also saw the star testify publicly for the first time about life under the conservatorship’s control, a hearing that confirmed many #FreeBritney advocates’ worst fears.

Mathew Rosengart, Britney Spears’s lawyer, speaks to supporters after the hearing on Friday.
Mathew Rosengart, Britney Spears’s lawyer, speaks to supporters after the hearing on Friday. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

“It was both shocking and horrifying. Part of me had always wished we were wrong, at least about the darkest details,” Simmons says.

Last month, Spears thanked the dedicated group of fans who have spent years fighting to end the restrictive legal arrangement.

“#FreeBritney movement … 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!!!!!,” she tweeted in October.

Organizing to support Spears and the end of her conservatorship was a full-time job for many #FreeBritney advocates. They coordinated rallies, worked on marketing for the cause and traveled across the country to attend demonstrations outside the courthouse. Some, like Mandarano, have moved to Los Angeles, to be closer to #FreeBritney events.

“Anytime I thought it was too much or I didn’t have time in the back of my head I was like, ‘She’s being silenced,’” said Megan Radford, a longtime #FreeBritney advocate based in Oklahoma. “Britney was being silenced for years and years and years. I truly believe that without the movement she would not be getting out of the conservatorship.”

Radford and other fans celebrated outside the Los Angeles courthouse Friday. Supporters sprayed confetti into the air, while some broke down in tears and danced in celebration. They had shut down the street in front of the courthouse and invited families to come speak about their experiences with conservatorships.

Junior Olivas, who helped organize the first fan rally in 2019, holds a cutout of Britney Spears as he gathers with supporters in Los Angeles.
Junior Olivas, who helped organize the first fan rally in 2019, gathers with supporters in Los Angeles. Photograph: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock

“All the hard work, the sacrifice and calling off work. It’s been worth it and I would do it all over,” said Junior Olivas, who helped organize the first fan rally outside the court in 2019. “This is life-changing for her.”

The movement’s long term effects

Jasmine E Harris, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and expert in conservatorships, said that Spears’s case had demonstrated the power of transparency and public pressure, and that Spears would likely still be stuck in the arrangement had she not gotten the opportunity to speak in open court.

The #FreeBritney movement brought attention to a major disability rights issue, Harris said, noting that many people with disabilities remain trapped in these arrangements: “It will continue to be incredibly difficult for people who are in conservatorships to restore their legal capacity.”

She said there needed to be more investments in alternatives to conservatorships that allow people to get support while maintaining their autonomy: “This affects young people with disabilities across the country. And so this deserves our sustained attention.”

The movement’s efforts haven’t ended with Spears. Advocates have turned their attention to the conservatorship system more broadly, advocating for the reform or end of the guardianships entirely and working with disability rights groups in California to sponsor legislation.

A supporter celebrates with a “We did it!” sign outside the Stanley Mosk courthouse in Los Angeles.
A supporter celebrates with a “We did it!” sign outside the Stanley Mosk courthouse in Los Angeles. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

“The #FreeBritney folks are very organized. They could write a textbook on community organizing, and this is from a woman who spent most of her career organizing,” said Judy Mark, the cofounder and president of Disability Voices United, a disability rights organization that has worked with the movement. “They went into it as fans but they’ve realized the power they can have.”

Spears’s case and the work of #FreeBritney organizers have brought an unprecedented level of attention to conservatorships, Mark said. Her organization and others are working on legislation to dramatically reform conservatorships in California, which the governor’s office and legislature have expressed interest in.

“That never would have happened a year ago,” she said. “All of this changed the day Britney Spears got on the phone and spoke to the judge about how bad things are and the only way that happened is because of the #FreeBritney movement.”

But changes must happen quickly, she said, while people still remember what happened to Britney Spears, despite her wealth and resources.

“We realize this is a moment in time that we must take advantage of. The moment may not come again.”