U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Kansas state senator calls for slashing local PBS funding

Incident Details


Kansas State Sen. Caryn Tyson, pictured in the state capital in Topeka in 2018, called for the elimination of state funding for Kansas PBS stations on Feb. 8, 2024, citing her outrage over a program broadcast by KTWU that criticized a fellow senator.

— REUTERS/Dave Kaup
February 8, 2024

A Kansas state senator called on Feb. 8, 2024, for the legislature to eliminate all funding to Kansas PBS stations in retaliation for a documentary broadcast by Topeka’s public TV channel, KTWU. The proposed budget cut was initially reduced and then overturned by another legislative committee.

Sen. Caryn Tyson, during a meeting of the Senate Committee on Commerce, sought to have it strike the $500,000 typically allocated for the state’s six PBS stations, citing her outrage over a program that included criticism of the committee’s chairperson, Sen. Renee Erickson. While Tyson did not name the program, the Kansas Reflector identified it as “No Place Like Home: The Struggle Against Hate in Kansas,” a documentary about the plight of LGBTQ+ Kansans.

“I just don’t think we can tolerate it and the way we get the message to them is by impacting their purse,” Tyson said during the meeting. “That’s what the legislature does. We have the hammer, and I’m going to swing this hammer in a large way.”

The committee settled on a 10% reduction. Erickson cast the deciding vote in favor, while stating, “I have not asked for this. I do not make my policy decisions based on personal attacks on me or otherwise.”

Maxwell Kautsch, president of the Kansas Coalition for Open Government, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that the budget reduction appeared to be textbook governmental retaliation, which was particularly alarming as it came less than six months after a police raid on a newsroom in the state.

“What it comes down to is we have these laws, which are well-known in First Amendment circles and clearly established, yet we have people in positions of power or law enforcement that either don’t know or don’t care to know about them,” Kautsch said. “It’s hard to quantify the chilling effect that this kind of request has had.”

KTWU General Manager Val VanDerSluis told the Tracker that she took the budget proposal as an opportunity.

“I saw it as: I have someone who needs to be educated a bit more on how we program, how we operate, the audiences we serve,” VanDerSluis said. “For me, it wasn’t a threat. I will continue to program our station for our viewing community. I can’t operate off of fear, and it just shows that there are more conversations that need to be had with those that are making decisions about funding.”

VanDerSluis said that she spoke with Tyson after the proposal and, following their meeting, Tyson told VanDerSluis that she would no longer be pursuing cuts to the public broadcasting budget. Tyson did not respond to requests for comment.

Later, when the proposal went before the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 14, committee member Sen. Carolyn McGinn said that she would hate to see the budget cut because of hearsay, the Reflector reported. McGinn proposed that that committee not only restore the $50,000 but also increase the overall funding to $700,000. The committee ultimately voted against the budget cut and tabled discussions of an increase.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].