'Framing Britney Spears' examines the singer's conservatorship
Britney Spears attends an event in 2019. Photo from Shutterstock.com.
Social media is a blessing and a curse. We are at a point in human civilization where it’s never been easier to communicate with each other. Whether via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or any other platform, we have reached a position in our society where it arguably takes little to no effort to correspond with loved ones, those we despise and everything in between.
It’s that ability to quickly reach out to those we oppose or simply want to bother, pester, or “troll” that crafts a double-edged sword. Social media has sadly created a world where people forget that—to paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan—although everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own facts. Nevertheless, the ever-pervasive grip of electronic perspective conveyance is here to stay, and the power it holds can be life-altering, for better or worse.
For example, fans of Britney Spears have recently used social media to further their #FreeBritney movement. And, by all accounts, it appears the camp may have finally got its way … or at least made measurable ground toward its goal.
‘Framing Britney Spears’
What, exactly, are Britney Spears fans trying to free her from, and why has the fight gained steam recently?
The roots of this faction can be traced to a website, FreeBritney.net, launched in 2009. According to the site, “for 13 years, Britney Spears has been held in a court-ordered permanent probate conservatorship controlled by her father, Jamie Spears.” The movement intensified, though, as we all sat in our homes during the lockdown of 2020. Throngs of fans started to obsess over Spears’ Instagram account and the clues, hints and “secret codes” they believed the singer was relaying in her attempt to liberate herself from the conservatorship’s legal stranglehold.
This brings us to The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears. The Emmy-nominated documentary was released on Feb. 5, and is available to stream on Hulu. I watched the documentary with my wife (a proud Britney Spears fan to this day), and both of us came away wanting more substance. To be fair, the documentary does an outstanding job of recounting Spears’ life and rise to fame, including various low points the pop singer likely wishes to forget. Yet, the documentary offers little discussion or explanation regarding her specific conservatorship or what a conservatorship generally entails.
What is a conservatorship?
Spears’ conservatorship is a product of the California judicial system. While conservatorships are in no way limited to the state of California, I wanted to focus on that specific jurisdiction for obvious reasons.
According to the most recent version of the Judicial Council of California’s Handbook for Conservators (2016 revised edition), a conservatorship is a legal process by which a probate judge appoints a “conservator” to “protect and manage the personal care or finances—or both—of a person who has been found by a judge or a jury to be unable to manage his or her own affairs.” The person for whom the conservatorship is initiated to benefit and protect is known as the “conservatee.” As such, the position of conservator is one of “great trust and responsibility” and the court and the conservatee must trust that the conservator will “follow the law and to act in the conservatee’s best interests.”
In essence, a conservatorship creates a legal fiduciary.
A court can appoint an individual as a conservator of a person to assist them with their basic daily needs. One can also be appointed a conservator of the estate to assist in managing the conservatee’s finances. The two positions are not mutually exclusive, though, as a court can appoint an individual to be the conservator of the estate and the person. Regardless of the specific position, however, the obligations of the conservator are numerous, and the responsibility is not something to be taken lightly.
Consequently, the law provides certain rights for the conservatee. Many of those rights are relatively obvious (though potentially subject to a judge’s discretion to limit them based on the conservatee’s capacity). Some of the more conspicuous rights include the rights to receive visitors, telephone calls, and personal mail, marry, vote, control personal spending money and make their own medical decisions. Still, other rights granted to the conservatee could potentially alter the course of the conservatorship, such as being represented by a lawyer, asking a judge to change conservators, and actually asking the judge to end the conservatorship.
Notably, the Handbook references the fact that there are various types of conservatees: “Many are elderly people, and some are younger people with temporary or permanent mental or physical disabilities.”
The first relevant court document I could find was in reference to a “Petition for Appointment of Probate Conservator” alleging dementia as a basis for the conservatorship of Britney Jean Spears. The petition was filed on Feb. 1, 2008. While Spears’ various actions during that time definitely did not reflect positively on her mental state, it’s interesting to gauge that allegation against the most recent developments in her case.
Mental health or abuse of the system?
As Framing Britney Spears makes abundantly clear, there have been numerous instances in Spears’ life that could give rise to concern for her mental health and well-being. But still, it is objectively easy to understand how someone so young could “break” under the constant pressure and attention of being arguably the biggest pop star in the world at the height of her career. Spears has even publicly acknowledged that the conservatorship was necessary when the court initially put it into place.
But how temporary is that impairment? Spears has maintained a lower profile than her late ’90s to mid-2000s heyday. She does not tour and perform at even a fraction of what she did during that stretch. Without knowing her actual diagnosis—which was not publicly disclosed—and the specifics of her situation, it is fair to assume that a majority of the issues that formed the basis for the conservatorship were due to the pressures of performing and a life front and center for the paparazzi.
If you are new to my column, let me be clear: I don’t practice in this area. I solely practice criminal law. Consequently, I don’t want to go too far out on a limb with my legal analysis.
“Well, then why did you bring up the topic, Adam?” Because this column is about the intersection of law and pop culture.
Spears’ legal battle is apparent to anyone who dabbles in social media. Even outside of that arena, if you simply receive push notifications on your smartphone from reputable news sources, you more than likely saw Spears’ conservator (her father James “Jamie” Spears—the foil of the “Free Britney” movement) announce on Aug. 12, 2021, that he would step down from his position. Sure, the move is likely in response to Britney’s petition to have him removed, filed only weeks prior. In that petition, she alleged her father had been abusing his position for some time. Even so, the crescendo of the #FreeBritney movement and the New York Times documentary are worth taking into account as well.
Ultimately, it would be disingenuous not to consider James Spears’ treatment via various media platforms and productions such as Framing Britney Spears. One would be hard-pressed to believe he didn’t feel the constant scrutiny levied through social media and other outlets. In fact, James Spears filed a petition this week to end his daughter’s conservatorship. As a result, we have another example of social media altering the course of individuals’ lives—for better or worse. Let’s hope it’s the former, for Britney’s sake.
ABAJournal.com: “Britney Spears succeeds in move to hire own lawyer in conservatorship case”
ABAJournal.com: “A tale of love, loss and conservatorships in the Golden Age of Hollywood”
Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney of the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white-collar crimes.
The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.