At times, Congress can seem hopelessly divided. But there is one issue uniting members from both parties and chambers. Just days before the Fourth of July, Americans of all political stripes are coming together for the cause of liberty: #FreeBritney.
Following a mental health crisis in 2008, pop star Britney Spears has lived under the strict confines of a conservatorship that gives her father, Jamie Spears, almost plenary control over her personal life and massive fortune. Last week, the singer petitioned a California court to end the conservatorship, telling Judge Brenda Penny, “I’ve lied and told the whole world I’m OK and I’m happy,” she said. “I’m in shock. I’m traumatized… I’m so angry it’s insane.”
Spears’ testimony has sparked conversations across the nation about mental health, treatment, recovery and where to draw the limit on paternalistic interventions. Members of Congress have also begun to weigh in, calling Spears’ treatment outrageous.
Rep. Matt Gaetz has been the most vocal lawmaker calling for Spears’ release from conservatorship. The Florida Republican, who is attempting to weather allegations that he paid for sex with a 17-year-old, has tweeted multiple times about Spears, appeared on Fox News to discuss the matter and mentioned it at a House Judiciary Committee markup of antitrust legislation on Thursday.
“I do believe the nation was quite taken with the control that the guardianship and conservatorship process has on far too many Americans,” Gaetz said. “I would reiterate the call that ranking member [Jim] Jordan and I made to Chairman [Jerrold] Nadler to allow us to hold hearings on conservatorship and guardianship and abuse, and I think the very first witness before the Judiciary Committee should be Britney Spears.”
Jordan, R-Ohio, and Gaetz wrote a letter back in March to Nadler requesting a hearing on conservatorship abuse that pointed to Spears as the “most striking example” of the issue.
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton was a bit more circumspect when he tweeted Friday, admitting that conservatorship was “a word I didn’t know until yesterday” and asking his followers if Congress should investigate. The overwhelming majority said yes.
Spears, 39, has spent the last 13 years under the court-ordered conservatorship while going on to record albums, tour the nation and appear as a talent judge on the TV show “The X Factor.” Her fans have argued that a temporary solution while the pop star recovered from mental health and substance use struggles has turned into a de facto prison.
Under the conservatorship, Spears has been prohibited from speaking out about her situation and has had limited access to her $60 million fortune earned as a multi-platinum recording artist. Jamie Spears receives a salary as her conservator and a large cut of his daughter’s earnings.
It can be extremely difficult for individuals under adult guardianship to end their supervision. Spears is petitioning the court using a lawyer she herself could not select, but who is being paid a stipend per the conservatorship’s terms.
In February 2021, The New York Times released a documentary, “Framing Britney Spears,” that examines her career and hardships in the entertainment industry that led to her public mental health struggles in 2008, including the conservatorship and losing custody of her two children with ex-husband Kevin Federline.
The film spurred interest in the “Free Britney” movement, and supporters have argued that the conservatorship is unnecessary given her ability to continue to perform and work.
That shift in tone is also mirrored in members of Congress speaking out, as lawmakers have historically used Spears and other celebrities as punching bags.
“Being lectured on fiscal irresponsibility by this Democratic Congress is like being lectured on parenting by Britney Spears. It makes no sense at all,” Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said in 2007 on the House floor.
The late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also used photos of Spears in a presidential campaign ad in 2008, drawing comparisons between the singer and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama as celebrities who are unfit to lead.
‘I Wanna Go’ … hold a hearing
Given a number of competing issues, it is unclear what committee could have jurisdiction if the #FreeBritney movement is taken up by Congress.
Conservatorships are traditionally appointed for individuals who are very old or who may have a mental or physical disability that places limitations on their day-to-day activities. Long-term care falls under the umbrella of the House Ways and Means Committee, but that usually encompasses issues like nursing home care or Medicare.
But liberal women’s health groups have also seized on Spears’ comments about allegedly being prevented by the conservatorship from removing her intrauterine device, or IUD, which is a form of long-lasting birth control, so that she can become pregnant.
“Everyone deserves control over their own body. Period,” tweeted Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, the fourth-ranking House Democrat.
The House and Senate Judiciary committees have previously held hearings on limits related to reproductive health, such as abortion bans. Advocacy organizations like Planned Parenthood have drawn parallels to what they call reproductive coercion — policies that restrict access to birth control or attempt to control pregnancy outcomes — and the limits that prevent Spears from attempting to become pregnant.
“If a celebrity like Britney Spears’ body can be legally controlled by outside individuals, then imagine what low-income women around the world have to deal with. Reproductive freedom is a basic human right,” said Paula Ávila-Guillén, executive director of the Women’s Equality Center.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee has often taken the lead on issues related to mental health, meaning it could also fall under the jurisdiction of its Oversight subcommittee. Expanding access to a variety of treatments and reducing stigma for people living with a mental illness or substance use disorder have been bipartisan priorities for the committee in recent years.
The Twitter account for Republicans on the House Education and Labor Committee also tweeted “#FreeBritney,” drawing comparisons between federal oversight of education and a conservatorship. But it is unclear how it could fit under the committee’s jurisdiction.
Celebrities often draw more attention to issues that affect them than the similarly afflicted but less famous. Spears is just one of 1.3 million Americans under adult guardianship, and her millions are just a drop in the $50 billion bucket under conservators’ control. Still, it is rare for any issue to so quickly draw bipartisan interest. But Spears’ situation unites reproductive rights activists with freedom-focused conservatives and an ecumenical distaste for seeing individuals exploited by those who are supposed to look after them.
Megan Mineiro contributed to this report.