COMMUNICATIONS Minister Pat Rabbitte has expressed concern that legal threats against RTE could stifle public debate ahead of the referendum on gay marriage.
He was speaking in response to the national broadcaster's decision to pay compensation and apologise to officials from Catholic advocacy group The Iona Institute, over comments made on 'The Saturday Night Show'.
Hosted by Brendan O'Connor, the chat show came under fire for an interview on January 11 with performer and gay rights activist Rory O'Neill, who performs under the drag name Miss Panti Bliss.
Mr Rabbitte said: "Speaking personally, I have never used the term 'homophobe' to describe those who disagree with me on issues of gay equality in general or gay marriage in particular.
"It is too loaded a term to be used to categorise those who hold contrary views on what is a matter for legitimate public debate.
"That said, I would also hope that people and institutions that hold themselves out as commentators on, or contributors to, public debate fully appreciate – as most politicians do – that debate can be robust, heated, personal and sometimes even hostile.
"If you enter the arena, you cannot expect that the Queensbury Rules will always apply," Mr Rabbitte said.
"It would be a matter of serious concern if recourse to our defamation laws was to have a chilling effect on the conduct of public debate on this issue, in the lead-in to the forthcoming referendum on gay marriage," he added.
Mr Rabbitte insisted he had "no intention" of interfering in RTE's management of the litigation claims against it.
"But I do expect that RTE remains fully committed to its chief obligation as a public service broadcaster – to ensure the full and free exchange of information and opinion on all matters of legitimate public interest," Mr Rabbitte said.
Dublin Bay North Labour TD Sean Kenny, a member of the Oireachtas Communications Committee, welcomed his party colleague's statement.
Mr Kenny added that he "was very concerned" when he heard of RTE's decision to pay damages to The Iona Institute.
"I am also concerned at the lack of transparency in relation to this, in terms of the amount of money paid, and the precise reason for doing so," Mr Kenny said.
It comes after Fianna Fail Senator Averil Power called on Mr Rabbitte to reveal whether he believes RTE "acted appropriately" by paying compensation, a move she said had set a "dangerous precedent".
Comments were made on 'The Saturday Night Show' about commentator John Waters, writer Breda O'Brien and The Iona Institute. Neither was in the studio.
RTE removed the episode from its online digital player before uploading it again but with Mr O'Neill's segment removed for "potential legal reasons".
The station later apologised for any "upset or distress" caused.
RTE has said it would not be commenting on claims damages were to be paid to individuals as a result of comments made on 'The Saturday Night Show'.