Stephen Langford’s day started with a defiant poem and ended with a conviction, after a Sydney court ruled a pro-refugee message the 62-year-old scrawled on a billboard in liquid chalk met the definition of an aggravated graffiti charge.
On a ground-level Darlinghurst billboard advertising Jaguar vehicles with the slogan “sorry to appear aggressive”, the retired nurse and long-time human rights activist had, at 9.15am on August 14, 2019, used a liquid chalk marker to add his two cents: “Sorry to bully innocent people in concentration camps for six years. But that’s Australia.”
Stephen Langford was convicted and fined $400 for defacing the billboard.
He was caught in the act by two police officers, who attempted to rub off the writing with their hands but found it wouldn’t budge and subsequently charged Mr Langford with aggravated graffiti offences.
Mr Langford, who is facing separate charges for glueing an A4 poster detailing the massacre of Aboriginal people at Appin in 1816 to a statue of Lachlan Macquarie in Hyde Park, was met with supporters as he arrived at Downing Centre Local Court on Friday. He recited a ditty before heading inside: “We’ll go into court/The day will pass/If there is a penalty/They can stick it up their arse.”
Mr Langford’s barrister, multi-award winning journalist Mark Davis, argued that the charges against his client “impinge upon the implied rights of political speech”.
He also told the court the “fleeting” mark made by chalk “was not what the legislation intended in the Graffiti Act as an infringement”.
Activist Stephen Langford reads poetry outside the Downing Centre court.
But Magistrate Carolyn Huntsman said the label on the marker stated it was “permanent on cloth, leather, paper and other porous surfaces”.
While there was no further attempt to clean the vinyl skin of the billboard before it was replaced, Ms Huntsman said the mark that was left nevertheless met the definition of graffiti.
As for Mr Langford’s right to free political speech, in lengthy reasons considering the constitutional implications of his argument, Ms Huntsman found the Graffiti Act did not “impermissibly burden” that freedom when weighed against the need to protect private property.
“A person can put political messages in chalk on footpath… a person can stand with a sign on the street,” she said.
She declined to “impose clean-up orders on a pensioner”, saying “he’s not a tagger”, but convicted and fined Mr Langford $400, describing the penalty as “relatively lenient”.
Outside court, Mr Langford said his father fled Austria in 1938 at the age of 17 when it was annexed by Nazi Germany, and he felt “pissed off” that “people with a well-founded fear of persecution, like that, are being locked up” now with little outcry.
“It’s a last resort really, to write something publicly,” he said.
Mr Davis said the case reveals “how thin our right to political expression is in Australia”.
“Australians tend to believe we have the right to political expression, and yet when it is tested in court as it was today, continually it is shown that we do not.”
Mr Davis said people should be able to defend such charges on grounds of political speech without having to prove that the law is unconstitutional.
“It is continually disappointing, heartbreaking actually, that it’s regarded as almost bizarre to run this type of defence in the local court,” he said.
Mr Langford will return to court later this month on separate charges relating to the poster pasted on a statue of Macquarie.