One spring evening in March 2009, Megan Radford stood outside the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. The 22-year-old was about to see her idol, Britney Spears, perform as part of her best-selling Circus tower. But unlike the excited fans flooding the arena in schoolgirl outfits and red latex catsuits, Radford wore a homemade pink t-shirt emblazoned with the words “FREE BRITNEY” in black lettering.
It was the first time, but not the last, that Radford has protested the guardianship of Britney Spears – the permanent legal control of her finances, career decisions and major personal affairs by her father, Jamie Spears – who was in effect since 2008. “I knew something was wrong, but I went to the concert anyway,” Radford told VICE. “I didn’t understand that by leaving I was actually contributing to the problem.”
What Radford didn’t know was that within a decade she would become one of the most recognizable faces of the #FreeBritney movement that has spread across the world and helped force the end of the conservatorship of Spears in November 2021. “My voice was muted and threatened for so long…” Spears said in a video posted on Twitter, as she thanked the fans who had pioneered the movement. “Thanks to you, I honestly think you saved my life.”
It would be understandable for many of us to assume that these fans, known online as the Britney Army, simply resumed their fan duties after Britney’s release. Instead, many of them – now equipped with a deep understanding of America’s broken guardianship system and the legal framework surrounding it – have become tireless human rights activists, turning their attention to other unjust cases among the roughly 1.3 million other Americans living in conservatorship. “It’s hard to learn what we’ve learned and not feel pressured to act,” says Radford, who is now co-manager of Free Britney LA.
Intended as a last resort, a conservatorship – sometimes called conservatorship – is a court-ordered arrangement usually reserved for elderly or disabled people deemed unable to manage their own personal and/or financial affairs. Governed by US state laws, it is believed that by having a conservator (usually a family member) handle these decisions, a guardianship will protect a vulnerable person from financial abuse and help them meet their basic daily needs. High-profile guardians include Hollywood actress Amanda Bynes and Pop Art figure Peter Max.
While many experts believe that certain guardianships can be beneficial, others have argued that they can become a way for a curator to neglect, abuse and rob a curator. In 2010, a Government Accountability Office guardianship review of 20 guardianship cases found that guardians “stole or otherwise improperly obtained $5.4 million in assets from 158 incompetent victims”.
Retail director John Fernandes started the Touch of Rose project with other activists after attending a #FreeBritney rally in New York City in 2020, he said. “No matter what an individual’s condition, physical or psychological, depriving them of their human and civil rights because they are old, disabled or simply because you disagree with their decisions is completely wrong. “
Fernandes’ social media project shares information about high-profile conservatorship cases, organizes anti-conservation rallies and sells merchandise – the proceeds of which he will use to fund a nationwide “court watchers” initiative to expose the abuse in guardianship hearings.
Rachel, who lives in the UK, admits she only became a Spears fan in 2019 after learning about her situation. Known on Twitter as @freebritPleasethe graphic designer had never heard of a guardianship before, but learned about going through court documents and researching anti-conservation charities like KasemCares and NASGA (National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse).
She tells me that throughout the #FreeBritney movement, fans have used social media to connect with other anti-conservation advocates and families of victims, “who then attended rallies, denounced and validated the corruption that was rife within the guardianship system”. Now she shares case updates with her followers and uses her design skills to amplify online guardianship abuse statistics.
One of the advocates Rachel was in contact with was film producer Angelique Fawcette. Fawcette’s close friend is Nichelle Nichols, 89, who, as Lieutenant Uhura in star trek, made history in the 1960s as one of the first black women to appear on an American television series. Nichols is currently under the judicial supervision of his son, Kyle Johnson. Fawcette legally challenges the Nichols’ conservatorship, questions the dementia diagnosis that enabled its implementation, and argues that Nichols is more than capable of making his own decisions. On January 10, #FreeBritney protesters joined Fawcette and held a rally in Los Angeles to demand an end to Nichols’ conservatorship.
Fawcette raves about the “strategic, smart and compassionate” members of the #FreeBritney movement who are helping to raise awareness of her friend’s situation. “These people are not just fans wearing pink t-shirts, they are activists who take human rights seriously,” she said. “I will owe them for the rest of my life.”
In the case of Spears and many others, the question is: why do these legal structures, created to provide protection against abuse and exploitation, end up doing so much harm to the people they are meant to protect? Lisa MacCarley, a Californian probate and guardianship, thinks guardianships are imposed too voluntarily, and that the “woeful underfunding” of the US probate court system prevents judges from receiving proper training and the tools to understand how to look at these complex cases.
“We have these judges, who have never even practiced guardianship law or received sufficient training, making big life and death decisions,” says MacCarley, who has nearly 30 years of experience representing Conservatives and their families in court. “It’s a systemic problem, especially in places like California, Nevada and New York where these hotbeds of abuse exist.”
MacCarley vehemently supports reform and tells me she’s been trying to educate the system about dysfunction and cronyism for years. Hailing the #FreeBritney movement as “a miracle”, she says it has finally pushed politicians to understand that conservatorship abuse is not something to be swept under the rug.
In January 2022, Free Britney LA joined a number of disability rights groups to push for new legislation in California. Backed by Democratic MP Brian Maienschein, the proposed bill would make it easier to end conservatories for those who wish to leave them. Instead, it would promote alternatives like “supported decision-making,” in which an individual elects someone to help them make and communicate life decisions, rather than giving up all control.
“We understand that you can’t just abolish a system overnight,” says Radford. “Our goal is to make it harder to get into guardianship and easier to get out of it. Once that flow slows, we can start working towards abolition.
There’s no denying that the #FreeBritney movement has redefined what it means to be a super fan. The trajectory many of them have taken, from pop hardliners to emboldened human rights activists helping to shape legislation, is unprecedented. When I ask Radford what separates Britney fans from other fans, she refers to a meme she saw online. “Instead of overflowing with photos of our idol, our phone rolls are full of screenshots of research and court documents,” she says, “I think that sums it up pretty well.”