Can the trendy Twitter hashtag influence the courts?
Before pop megastar Britney Spears’ heavily publicized breakdowns in 2008, the word “Conservatorship” was no more than foreign and mundane legal jargon. It was the kind of word that was almost strictly reserved for obscure news articles from the “Finance” section or something you might see in a spelling test. It was far from kitchen table banter.
But twelve years on, and Spears’ conservatorship seems to have assumed a life of its own – one almost as domineering as the pop queen’s career itself. And it has all accumulated into one larger-than-life controversy, spearheaded by none other than Spears’ fans themselves, who have taken up the Twitter hashtag ‘#FreeBritney’ as their official warcry in an attempt to urge Californian courts to rescind her conservatorship and “free” Britney.
But die-hard fans and celebrity breakdowns aside, what really is a ‘Conservatorship’? And why has it caused the revulsion that it has? More importantly, how can the public play a part in this important piece of family law?
While different states have varying legislation around the concept of Conservatorship, it is generally defined in very similar terms as being a process whereby a Guardian or Protector is given the legal responsibility of managing another person’s financial affairs. This is usually due to the ‘conservatee’s’ physical or mental limitations.
It is important to note that a Conservatorship is not a Guardianship. While the first seeks to safely manage a person’s finances on their behalf, the latter centers around managing the day-to-day matters of another person, especially medical and educational ones.
Conservatorship is appointed by a court after examining the case’s context, including medical records and financial records, in order to establish that a Conservatorship is indeed the best viable option and is in the conservatee’s best interest.
None of this sounds particularly groundbreaking. Guardian-role laws have been around for centuries and have played an especially important role in the lives of minors. So how did Conservatorship gain such notoriety in the last decade? In order to answer that, one has to look into America’s most famous conservatee: Britney Spears.
Shortly before 2008, Spears had displayed concerning behavior, including driving with her baby son in her lap as well as famously shaving her head and attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. She also refused to hand over custody of her two children to their father and was hospitalized shortly after for being under the influence of an unidentified substance. She was hospitalized again in 2008, this time into a psychiatric ward. It was at this point that a California court decided that Spears was no longer capable of making decisions and appointed her father, James Spears, as her permanent sole conservator.
Since 2008, Spears’ conservatorship has been revised and renewed on a regular basis, stretching all the way into August 2020, when the conservatorship was renewed again until February 2021.
Suspicions began when it was revealed that under the conservatorship Britney Spears had little to no control over her financial assets. All business decisions were, and still are, being made by her father and attorney Andrew Wallet. Additionally, James Spears receives a court-approved cut from Britney’s earnings, including her extremely successful Las Vegas residency. Fans of the pop star had always shown concern over these issues, but it was not until more recent years that the #FreeBritney slogan began to gain traction, following more concerning social media posts by Spears urging the courts to release her.
So what now? The courts don’t seem to be letting up on Spears’ conservatorship anytime soon, and the pop powerhouse herself still shows signs of instability. In normal circumstances, a conservatorship would end when Spears is deemed capable enough or if her conservator was to pass away.
But this is not an ordinary conservatorship. There is a third party involved: the public. Britney Spears’ conservatorship has been widely covered and continues to draw boundless media attention, especially as the #FreeBritney initiative gains more momentum than ever and continues to dominate social media ‘trending’ lists.
So the question remains: Can the public influence a private ruling such as a Conservatorship? Does the #FreeBritney movement have any legal legitimacy?
The short answer is yes. But there’s a lot of fine print to unpack here.
Judicial decision-making is influenced by a variety of sources, including the case facts, legal precedent, personal judgement and public opinion.
The facts of the case, however, must always take priority above all else. In Spears’ case, the facts are clear. Given that the court has access to her medical records, Spears is still suffering from a mental condition. While the nature of the condition has never been fully clarified, she continues to show signs of mental and emotional fragility, especially following her father’s hospitalization. Her children’s father, Kevin Federline, still has sole custody of both of their sons. This doesn’t leave much room for interpretation. The facts paint a rigid image of a woman who needs support in making important financial decisions, so it is no surprise that the courts have continued to extend the terms of her conservatorship for this long.
But what about the court of public opinion? Can the #FreeBritney catchphrase truly influence a judge? While public opinion is very much taken into consideration by judges, and has consistently done so in historical landmark cases, it does not take legal priority over the hard facts. And the hard facts, in this case, leave very little wiggle room. Additionally, the court of public opinion is historically employed during cases that pertain to social issues such as civil rights and public freedoms. A celebrity conservatorship does not fall under that category. While the #FreeBritney movement does seem to draw attention to the theory that Spears’ media posts suggest that she is being held against her will, it is ultimately only speculative evidence at best and does not hold up legally against the facts of the case.