Iowa school district banned books based on ChatGPT’s advice

A school district in Iowa is utilising ChatGPT to advance a book ban.

Mason City Community School District has pulled 19 books from school libraries’ shelves, including “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, according to The Gazette.

The changes were made in order for the district to comply with an Iowa law, Senate File 496, which prohibited “instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation in school districts.” Additionally, school libraries must hold books that contain “age-appropriate material,” which excludes “any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act,” according to the measure.

Bridgette Exman, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Mason City Community School District, told The Gazette that due to the vastness of the libraries, “It is simply not feasible to read every book and filter for these new requirements. Therefore, we are using what we believe is a defensible process to identify books that should be removed from collections at the start of the 23-24 school year.”

The school district told the outlet that “lists of commonly challenged books” were filtered “for challenges related to sexual content.” Then, the books were reviewed “using AI software to determine if it contains a depiction of a sex act.

Then, based on this review, there are 19 texts that will be removed from our 7-12 school library collections and stored in the Administrative Center while we await further guidance or clarity. We also will have teachers review classroom library collections.”

Popular Science asked Ms Exman specifically about the unnamed “AI software” she alluded to, to which she replied that the district used ChatGPT.

Administrators input the name of the book into the same question“Does [book] contain a description or depiction of a sex act?” into the AI system, she explained to the outlet. “If the answer was yes, the book will be removed from circulation and stored,” Ms Exman continued.

“After compiling the list, we ran it by our teacher librarian, and there were no books on the final list of 19 that were surprising to her,” she told the outlet.

ChatGPT has been under fire since it has blown up in popularity. It’s widely known that the software is not always accurate. As The Atlantic put it, “ChatGPT lacks the ability to truly understand the complexity of human language and conversation.”

“There’s no good method for banning books, but the Mason City School District’s decision to use AI technology to review and remove books is deeply misguided, undercuts free expression, and overlooks the realities of what ChatGPT and similar services are and aren’t capable of,” said Liz Woolery, digital policy lead for PEN America, an organisation fighting against the nation’s book bans, in a statement.

“The district seems not to have noticed the mounting evidence about the potential for generative AI tools to miss the nuances of context and intent when reviewing content,” she continued, adding “Iowa law is already infringing dramatically on students’ freedom to read; the use of generative AI tools will only speed up that censorship.”