Britney Spears posts viral #FreeBritney hashtag: How fans hope to help conservatorship battle

  • Britney Spears has seemingly joined the ranks of #FreeBritney, sharing the viral tag on Instagram.
  • #FreeBritney fans say they're fighting against all abusive conservatorships, not just Britney's.
  • Activists are encouraged to file formal complaints and organize #FreeBritney rallies.
  • Another hearing in Britney Spears' conservatorship case is set for Sept. 29.

Claire Kelly was 33 when she says Britney Spears saved her life.

The Florida-based personal assistant and concierge decided to divorce her husband in April 2011, shortly after her father suffered a heart attack. On top of it, she was coping with shingles and depression.

Though Kelly felt "horribly judged" and "like everybody was in on my life," she says Spears reminded her better times were possible. The pop star had just released her album "Femme Fatale," less than four years after her infamous meltdown played out across tabloid covers.

"That became the soundtrack of everything I went through," Kelly says. "I thought, 'If this person can literally have the entire world judge her for every single little thing that she does, and she can still prevail and get out of bed and record music and dance and still be loved and cherished and be strong, what's my problem?' "

Spears rescued her during a dark time. Now, Kelly says, it's time for her and other fans to rescue Spears.

Kelly has joined the ranks of #FreeBritney, a fan-led movement that seeks to liberate Spears from her 13-year conservatorship. Though written off by many as fringe conspiracists, #FreeBritney advocates say their movement has had an impact on Spears' case and played a role in the pop star's decision to address the court in a bombshell public testimony.

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A life-size cardboard cutout of Britney Spears is surrounded by fans and supporters outside the County Courthouse in Los Angeles on June 23, 2021, during a hearing in Spears' conservatorship case.

Britney Spears' speech upsets, validates #FreeBritney fans

Though Spears' fans have been critical of the conservatorship that controls the pop star's life and body since its implementation in 2008, Kevin Wu, a 36-year-old data analyst from Los Angeles who co-created the website, says the grassroots movement caught fire after a 2019 podcast. 

On an episode of "Britney's Instagram: The Podcast," hosts Tess Barker and Barbara Gray played a voicemail from an anonymous caller claiming to be a paralegal formerly involved in Spears' conservatorship. The caller alleged the pop star had been forced into a mental institution for defying her father Jamie Spears, who currently serves as a conservator of her finances.

Barker and Gray turned the phrase "Free Britney" into a hashtag, which fans spread online to advocate against the conservatorship, Wu says. In February, the #FreeBritney movement garnered more attention following The New York Times' documentary "Framing Britney Spears," which explored discord over the pop star's conservatorship as well as her treatment by the media. Even celebrities and politicians have since spread the hashtag online, including Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Sarah Jessica Parker and Khloé Kardashian.

During a June hearing, Spears seemed to confirm many #FreeBritney advocates' concerns by revealing she's "traumatized," "depressed" and "demoralized" and asking for her conservatorship to end without evaluation. Spears herself even shared the hashtag on Instagram Wednesday, thanking her "awesome fans" for their support.

"I’ve lied and told the whole world I’m OK and I'm happy," Spears told Judge Brenda Penny. "I've been in denial. I’ve been in shock. … I’m so angry it’s insane."

For #FreeBritney advocates, the words were upsetting to hear, but validating.

"It was absolutely devastating to hear everything be confirmed," says Kelly, who listened to Spears' speech live while at a restaurant with her partner. "It felt like a crack in the earth. ... I will never forget where I was. I will never forget what I was looking at. I will never forget the way that she sounded."

Martino Odeh of Phoenix had a similar experience. The 27-year-old server drove to Los Angeles to attend a rally outside the courthouse where Spears called in to make her remarks.

"The minute we started hearing her voice, all the fans just started bawling their eyes out," he says. "For her to finally announce it and to say 'I'm being abused. I'm being trafficked. I'm not happy. I'm depressed. I cry every day.' That was like somebody ripped our hearts out."

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But does #FreeBritney even matter?

Though #FreeBritney advocates have high expectations for their movement, Amber Melville-Brown, head of the media-and-reputation team at international law firm Withers, says #FreeBritney fans are entitled to their opinions, but not to a say in Spears' case.

“A judicial decision is based on the law, on the testimony of the parties, on the relevant evidence of witnesses – it is not based on hashtags, on tweets or on demonstrations by albeit well-meaning members of the public,” she says. “Fans are not friends entrusted with her fears and hopes; fans are not legal advisers entrusted with her instructions; fans are not the judicial authorities entrusted with assessing the evidence and applying the law.”

Yet Christopher Melcher, a family law attorney in Los Angeles, says it's possible #FreeBritney has grown too large for the court to completely ignore.

"I don't know that we've ever seen a fan movement as organized and passionate as #FreeBritney," he says. "I have to think that it does have an impact, because there are so many people watching, whereas most conservatorships are done without anyone caring."

#FreeBritney activists protest at Los Angeles Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears on June 23, 2021, in LA.

#FreeBritney supporters feel confident they've made a difference in her case, and Wu suspects the movement factored into Spears' decision to deliver her remarks publicly.

"It wouldn't have happened the way it did without all the pressure on everyone," he says. "It took this global movement to make that happen. I certainly believe that Britney felt empowered to share her truth because of the #FreeBritney movement."

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Jared Lipscomb, 33, a podcast host who says he became more entrenched in the #FreeBritney cause during his battle with leukemia, says the movement has made its mark by shining a light on conservatorship abuse, which he says affects more than just Spears.

"We're not anti-conservatorship, but there needs to be, obviously, a series of checks and balances in place, if nothing else," he says. "Britney's story has definitely proven that that's the case."

For Odeh, Spears' speech suggested the pop star knows she isn't alone in wanting her conservatorship to end.

"She knows that we're fighting for her," he says. "The big army she has behind her helped ignite that fire in her to want to speak, to want to put an end to this."

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What is the future of #FreeBritney?

The legal drama surrounding Spears' conservatorship continues to unfold, with another hearing set for Sept. 29.

On June 30, a judge denied the singer's request to remove her father as sole conservator; however, those court filings were mainly intended for Penny to approve Bessemer Trust as Spears' co-conservator. The wealth management firm was appointed co-conservator of Spears' estate alongside her father in November but had its request to resign from the conservatorship granted on July 2.

During a hearing Wednesday, in which Penny ruled Spears is allowed to hire her own lawyer, the pop star spoke out again, telling the court via telephone she wants an "investigation" of alleged abuse.

"I’m not willing to sit with anybody at this point to be evaluated,” she told the judge. “I want to press charges for abuse. Instead of investigating my capacity, I want an investigation on my dad.”

Though next steps in the conservatorship battle remain unclear, one thing is certain: #FreeBritney advocates don't plan on giving up any time soon.

The site has published a list of actions activists can take, including writing letters to public officials demanding an audit of Spears' case, filing formal complaints against individuals involved in the case, educating others about conservatorship abuse and attending and organizing #FreeBritney rallies across the country. One petition for the #FreeBritney cause has garnered more than 170,000 signatures online.

"Hopefully the public pressure will result in some change," Wu says. "We also want to see someone in Britney's circle file a petition to end the conservatorship."

Kelly, who promptly handed out #FreeBritney informational cards to her server and bartender after hearing Spears' speech, said the pop star's statement has "lit a fire under us."

"We are going to have to literally break down the corrupt system of her family and of the probate courts in order to get anything done, because it's gone this long," she added. "Everyone is just mortified and upset and angry."

The speech may have confirmed many #FreeBritney advocates' suspicions, but Odeh says the movement's mission continues.

"We're not going to stop until Britney is free. That's point blank, period," he says. "We're not going to stop until we've got this figured out, and she is happy, and she is living the life that Britney Spears the human being – not the performer – wants to live."

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Contributing: Maria Puente, Cydney Henderson, Jenna Ryu and Bill Keveney