“Maybe Her Fame Can Be a Part of Creating a Better Remedy”: Matt Gaetz Is Pushing Congress to #FreeBritney

March 12, 2021
In The News

Matt Gaetz remembers the first time he heard Britney Spears. One of the few millennials in Congress, the Florida lawmaker was 16—certainly part of the target demographic for the bubblegum pop star—when his high school debate partner called him to tell him to turn on MTV to catch Spears’s 1998 chart-topping “…Baby One More Time.” Now, after watching the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears—which chronicles the 39-year-old’s controversial conservatorship controlled by her father, Jamie Spears—Gaetz, who spent much of the past few years acting as one of Donald Trump’s biggest defenders in Congress, has emerged as a somewhat unlikely ally of the #FreeBritney movement. 

“If the conservatorship process can rip the agency from a woman who was in the prime of her life and one of the most powerful pop stars in the world, imagine what it can do to people who are less powerful and have less of a voice,” Gaetz told me. “I’ve heard the story of those people in Florida”—where Gaetz served in the state legislature before being elected to Congress—“and I am concerned about access to due process for wards.” 

Gaetz called on Representative Jerry Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, to hold a hearing on the conservatorship process, in a letter sent to the New York congressman on Tuesday. “In recent years, there has been growing public concern about the use of conservatorships to effectively deprive individuals of personal freedoms at the behest of others through the manipulation of the courts,” Gaetz wrote in the letter, which is also signed by Congressman Jim Jordan in his role as the ranking member of the House committee. “Given the constitutional freedoms at stake and opaqueness of these arrangements, it is incumbent upon our Committee to convene a hearing to examine whether Americans are trapped unjustly in conservatorships.” 

Gaetz specifically notes Spears’s conservatorship as perhaps the “most striking example” of failures in the current system. In 2008, Spears was placed in a conservatorship after a string of public episodes raised questions about her mental health, including shaving her head and vandalizing a paparazzi vehicle with an umbrella. For years fans have questioned the arrangement, which designates her father as the guardian of her financial and personal affairs. The resulting #FreeBritney movement was supercharged last year, when a lawyer for the singer said in a court filing that Spears was “strongly opposed” to the arrangement, and that the conservatorship “must be changed substantially in order to reflect the major changes in her current lifestyle and her stated wishes.”

The Framing Britney Spears documentary, released by the Times last month, raised public awareness of Spears’s arrangement and conservatorships in general. While critics might dismiss the media-savvy Gaetz’s focus on the issue as a play for attention, he told me, “We shouldn't shy away from tough things because they impact famous people that we adore. And yes, Britney’s fame has caused so much pain in her life and has made her so vulnerable. Maybe her fame can be a part of creating a better remedy and a better ending.” (He also noted that this is not the first time a documentary spurred him to shift his ideology, citing Blackfish and Sanjay Gupta’s Weed as films that changed his views and influenced his policy positions on SeaWorld and medical marijuana, respectively.) 

Gaetz said his vision for a hearing on the conservatorship system would include a “discussion on elements of a bill of rights for wards,” and floated the ability to vote, opportunities to review, and financial audits as examples “that in any circumstance you would want to give a ward the opportunity to maintain.” Right now, he’s focused on getting Nadler to move on a hearing and said he doesn’t have anything else planned around the #FreeBritney movement. Though he did (jokingly) remind me of his proclivity for showing up to other members’ districts uninvited—a likely reference to his trip to Wyoming to troll Liz Cheney, whose ouster he has pushed after the fellow Republican voted to impeach Trump for inciting the January 6’s Capitol riot. 

“There are likely pros and cons to many of the legislative proposals that have been floated in prior years,” he said. “But this might be a good time to dust those off and give them a real thorough review.”