HIGHTIMES MAGAZINE: Autralian Acticists Face Charges For 4/20 Sydney Opera ouse Projection Protest

Feb 1, 2023

Australian Activists Face Charges for 4/20 Sydney Opera House Projection Protest

Two Australian cannabis activists facing charges for projecting pro-cannabis messages on the Sydney Opera House last year during a 4/20 protest demonstration argue their actions are constitutionally protected political expression.

Two activists in Australia are facing criminal charges for projecting pro-cannabis messages on the Sydney Opera House, one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. The activists, Alec Zammitt and Will Stolk, projected a dancing pot leaf and other images on the famed venue on April 20, 2022, timing their protest against the continued prohibition of marijuana in Australia to coincide with the cannabis community’s 4/20 high holiday.

A month before the 4/20 demonstration, Zammitt had conducted a trial run of the protest in which he projected images for a short time onto the Sydney Opera House from the Park Hyatt Hotel, a location with sweeping views of the iconic landmark and nearby Sydney Harbour Bridge. The images, which left no permanent mark on the structure, included cannabis leaves and the numeral 420, among others, and the phrase “Who are we hurting?” a primary theme of the activists’ protest.

Zammitt was contacted by police detectives, who visited his home the following day to conduct an interview. Before concluding the interview, the detectives told him that they were not sure if what he had done was an offense and said they would seek internal legal advice and contact him after a day’s time. When that didn’t happen, the activists believed they were in the clear and planned their next demonstration for 4/20. 

4/20 Demonstration Interrupted By Police

After returning to the Park Hyatt Hotel early on the morning of April 20, Zammitt and Stolk, who freely admit their actions, used laser projectors to again project the pro-cannabis imagery onto the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Before long, however, the protest was shut down by the authorities.

“The police ended up raiding the hotel suite where the projectors were set up. They issued me with an offense relating to the month prior as well as a new offense for the 4/20 projections,” Zammitt wrote in an email to High Times. “They also charged Will with the same offense under section 9 G of the Opera House Trust By-Laws.”

Zammitt went on to explain that the offense relates to “Distribution of advertisement etc. on Opera House Premises,” noting that there is similar legislation relating to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, on which the activists also projected pro-cannabis messages. So far, police have chosen not to pursue charges in relation to that part of the demonstration, however.

Stolk and Zammitt are fighting the charges against them, arguing that their actions did not constitute a commercial advertisement but were instead a constitutionally protected protest of Australia’s prohibition of cannabis and a message of support for reform legislation being debated in the New South Wales (NSW) Parliament. 

After being informed by the activists’ legal counsel that they would bring constitutional challenges to the charges against them, prosecutors changed their approach and agreed that rather than a commercial advertisement, Zammitt and Stolk’s actions were a political protest. However, they are continuing the proceedings and requiring the pair to present their constitutional defense in court.

Activists Appear In Court Next Week

On January 31, Stolk and Zammitt face a hearing in the case, where the NSW attorney general’s office will indicate if it will oppose the activists’ defense based on political expression or communication. If the attorney general opposes the defense, the matter will be set for a constitutional hearing.

If the case goes to trial and the activists are convicted of the charges against them, Stolk faces a fine of up to $1,100, while Zammitt’s penalty could be twice that due to the second charge for the trial run. Zammitt hopes the court proceedings bring attention to the continued prohibition of cannabis in Australia and amplify their “Who are we hurting?” message. He added that he has retained an attorney renowned for his work with constitutional defenses related to political expression and expects prosecutors to drop the charges before the case goes to the Australian High Court.

Stolk said he is tempted to pay the fine and be finished with the matter, but the case’s constitutional implications and his desire to continue spreading a pro-cannabis message keep him in the fight.

“We did this for a reason, and the reason was to firmly express our opinion and political belief that we should legally be allowed to consume and sell recreational cannabis just like we do alcohol and just like our brothers and sisters get to do in numerous legal states in the USA, in countries like Canada, Holland and Thailand, and soon even Germany,” Stolk wrote in an email. “We believe that the current Australian laws are stuck in the 1800s and we believe that it’s our constitutional right to be able to protest and express our political opinions.”

He also notes that the basis of the protest is the desire of many Australians to be able to smoke a joint without fear of reprisal from the government. He adds that it is a matter of personal freedom, something his grandfather fought for in World War 2, spending five years in a Nazi POW camp.

“I personally feel that if we give these corrupt politicians an inch they will take a mile,” Stolk asserts. “So as we are now in the position to take one for the team and stand up for our constitutional rights I think that no matter what the outcome it’s our duty as Australians to defend our freedoms that our ancestors fought so hard to protect.”