Iowa School District Uses ChatGPT to Ban a Toni Morrison Book and 18 Others From Libraries

Administrators asked the AI technology, “Does [book] contain a description or depiction of a sex act?”

Following new legislation from Republican Governor Kim Reynolds, which purports to protect children from obscene material, the district used Artificial Intelligence to make a determination on what books to ban. As a result, the AI technology flagged 19 book titles for "depictions of sex," including The Handsmaid's TaleBeloved, and The Kite Runner. According to Head Topics, the Mason City school board began reviewing library titles last month to ensure compliance with the law. Bridgette Exman, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction of Mason City, told Popular Science, “If the answer was yes [from ChatGPT], the book will be removed from circulation and stored.” Based on this review, there are 19 texts that will be removed from 7-12 school library collections and stored in the Administrative Center. Teaches will also review classroom library collections.

The new legislation, Senate File 496, prohibits “instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation in school districts, charter schools and innovation zone schools in kindergarten through grade six.” It requires that every book available to students be “age appropriate” and free of any “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.”

According to The VergeMason City administrators say they had experience teaching some of the books and “ran [the list] by” a librarian after retrieving answers using ChatGPT. But the answers generated by the tool are at times "contradictory based on how users prompt and query the software." When The Verge inputted the list of all 19 books banned by the Mason City school district into ChatGPT and asked whether they contained explicit or sexual scenes, the software indicated that several "did not contain that content."

“Our intention is to demonstrate a good faith effort to be in compliance with the law without redirecting time and energy that we should be using to focus on getting ready to welcome our teachers and students back for another school year,” Exman told The Verge in an email. “...Books that are currently on the list can be reconsidered, just like books that are not on the list can be reconsidered.”

Beloved by Toni Morrison

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