Trevor Phillips, the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has said the BBC may face sanctions over offensive reader comments on its website.

The corporation was forced to apologise over last week’s online debate on whether gays should be executed

According to the Times, Phillips wrote to Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust, to say the corporation could be legally forced by the EHRC to moderate reader comments on its website or face sanctions or possible court action.

The BBC premoderated comments on its Have Your Say site but some of those published on the Uganda debate appeared to break its code of conduct for submitted comments.

Some readers praised Uganda’s proposed law, which could see gays executed. The BBC’s rules for comments prohibit homophobic content.

Phillips told Lyons that the BBC and Channel 4 could be included in the Equality Bill as public bodies which could come under the “public sector equality duty”. The BBC’s broadcast and radio content are exempt from the duty but Phillips said online content could be covered under it.

He wrote: “We wish to consider this question of what place, if any, there may be for the public sector duty to extend to those areas of the BBC output where there is potential for community relations to be damaged, such as on comment boards.”

Critics expressed alarm at Phillips’ letter, saying it would undermine media freedom.

John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons culture committee, agreed that the BBC had been “offensive and irresponsible” but warned against state censorship.

“They should be subject to the same controls in terms of freedom of speech as other broadcasters and publishers,” he told the Times.

Media lawyer Mark Stephens, who has been campaigning against Uganda’s proposed law, described Phillips’ letter as “a pathetic attempt to censor free speech on a matter of enormous public interest”.