Bruce Lehrmann cancels headline speaking role at ‘presumption of innocence’ conference

<span>Bruce Lehrmann lost his defamation case against Network Ten, bringing to an end a sprawling legal saga that gripped the nation.</span><span>Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP</span>
Bruce Lehrmann lost his defamation case against Network Ten, bringing to an end a sprawling legal saga that gripped the nation.Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

Bruce Lehrmann has cancelled his headline speaking role at June’s “Restoring the Presumption of Innocence” conference in the wake of his defamation trial judgment, as survivor advocacy groups label the event “cooked”.

Before Justice Michael Lee found that, on the balance of probability, Lehrmann raped his former colleague Brittany Higgins in Parliament House in 2019, Lehrmann was due to appear at the conference as a “poster boy for trial by media”.

Advertisements for the Sydney event described it as challenging “the believe-all-women ideology”.

The event’s sponsors, Mothers of Sons, said Lehrmann “decided not to appear”. Australians for Science and Freedom (ASF), who have been working with Mothers of Sons, said Lehrmann agreed with their assessment that he should not be on the program.

Related: What’s next for Bruce Lehrmann? | Fiona Katauskas

Sarah Williams, founder of the advocacy group What Were You Wearing, is running a petition to cancel the conference altogether. She said the organisations and speakers supported Lehrmann.

“It’s good that he’s pulled out but I’m still very concerned that it’s going ahead,” she said.

“The event’s as cooked as it was before. It is people getting together to victim-blame.

“We’re already struggling to get any crimes convicted. Things like this make it a million times harder. It’ll make victims not want to go further any more.”

Mothers of Sons posted on Facebook that Lehrmann was “subject to extremely aggressive pursuit by the media”.

“[He] is concerned that his participation may threaten the audience, jeopardise this important event, and distract from its main purpose.”

They describe themselves as a group of women whose “sons have faced extraordinary ordeals in our unjust, anti-male legal systems and workplaces”.

They claim men are routinely subjected to false accusations of sexual assault, and treated as guilty from the very first accusation.

Statistics show very few women ever report sexual assaults. Of those who do, few of the complaints get to court. Of those that get to court, sexual assault cases have the highest acquittal rate compared to other offences.

Bettina Arndt, a writer who describes her work as “denouncing feminism and advocating for men’s rights”, is organising the conference along with ASF and Mothers of Sons.

In promotional material shared by Arndt before the trial, Lehrmann is described as the “poster boy for trial by media” who has “endured years of having his reputation trashed”.

Arndt wrote on her blog that she would speak at the conference about a “fake rape crisis” on university campuses.

In February, education ministers gave the go ahead to an independent watchdog to tackle gender-based violence on campuses after a survey found one in 20 students had been sexually assaulted since starting university.

Arndt has often been at the centre of controversies, including having her Australia Day honour for services “to gender equity through advocacy for men” reviewed after a public backlash. The former Australians of the Year Grace Tame and Rosie Batty as well as former Victorian premier Daniel Andrews were among those who wanted Arndt stripped of the award.

Mothers of Sons said the conference would go ahead with an alternative presenter.

“(While) ensuring that the Lehrmann case still receives appropriate attention at the conference as a powerful example of trial by media undermining the vital legal principle of the presumption of innocence,” they said.

Gigi Foster, co-founder and co-director of ASF, said Mothers of Sons and Arndt were responsible for “drawing up the specific program for the conference”.

Related: Bruce Lehrmann ‘hellbent on having sex’ with Brittany Higgins and raped her in Parliament House, defamation judge finds

“ASF supports the principle of presumed innocence,” she said.

“We are not involved in this conference in order to support any particular person, including Bruce Lehrmann, or any convicted criminal.

“After Monday’s ruling, ASF did not see Bruce as someone who should be on the conference program, and we are glad that he agreed with this assessment (as did Bettina).”

She said most Australians would agree with ASF’s position that the “presumption of innocence should apply to all human beings”.

The conference will be held at a mystery venue in Rushcutters Bay.

Guardian Australia has contacted Arndt and Mothers of Sons for comment.