US schools ask ChatGPT to help ban 'obscene' library books

This comes after Iowa, among 35 other states, passed legislation to protect children from 'obscene' books.
Sejal Sharma
Representational image
Representational image

Robert Way/iStock 

The schools in Iowa’s Mason City are asking ChatGPT if a certain book contains a description or depiction of sex. If the artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot answers in the affirmative, then the school removes that book from its library.

This comes three months after Iowa passed legislation that wants children’s reading materials to be ‘age-appropriate.’ The law was signed by the state’s Republican governor Kim Reynolds.

The legislation passed in May 2023 stipulates that children in grades one to six be not given gender identity education. The legislation also says that knowledge of AIDS, HPV, and HPV vaccines be not given to students belonging to that age group.

Similar laws proposed and passed in 36 states

The law is largely prohibitive of anything to do with sex and also specified that each school district is to establish various library programs that will be appropriate for students from kindergarten to class twelve.

According to a report by The Gazette, 19 books have been pulled off the shelves so far. They include 

Learning about gender identity and sex is a strong part of a child’s identity growing up, in terms of how they see themselves - as a boy, girl, intersex, male, female, transgender, or somewhere in the spectrum. It seems that the laws aren’t sitting well with the teachers of the district.

“Frankly, we have more important things to do than spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to protect kids from books,” said Bridgette Exman, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at Mason City Community School District, in an email to Popular Science

“At the same time, we do have a legal and ethical obligation to comply with the law. Our goal here really is a defensible process,” she added.

Exman said in a statement to The Gazette that it is not feasible to read every book in the library to filter out the ‘wrong’ ones. “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,” she said in reference to ChatGPT. 

“After this, we will continue to rely on our long-established process that allows parents to have books reconsidered. We are confident this process will ensure the spirit of the law is enacted here in Mason City; parents will always have a voice in their student’s education," she added.

Exman told PopSci that administrators believe the tool remains the simplest way to legally comply with new legislation.

Parents trust schools

About 74 percent of parents of children attending public schools believe that school librarians can make good decisions about which books to make available to children. When asked about specific types of books that may be incendiary, a large majority said that they should be available in school libraries on an age-appropriate basis, as per a 2022 poll.

The US has seen an increase in the banning of books over the last year. Pen America, a non-profit working to defend free expression in the country, said that during the first half of the 2022-23 school year, there were 1,477 instances of individual books being banned. This was an increase of 28% from the prior six months of January to June 2022.

In the 2022-23 school year, most cases of book banning were recorded in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina, as per Pen America.

Here’s a list of books banned by the Mason City schools:

"Killing Mr. Griffin" by Lois Duncan

"Sold" by Patricia McCormick

"A Court of Mist and Fury" (series) by Sarah J. Maas

"Monday's Not Coming" by Tiffany D. Jackson

"Tricks" by Ellen Hopkins

"Nineteen Minutes" by Jodi Picoult

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

"Beloved" by Toni Morrison

"Looking for Alaska" by John Green

"The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini

"Crank" by Ellen Hopkins

"Thirteen Reasons Why" by Jay Asher

"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie

"An American Tragedy" by Theodore Dreiser

"The Color Purple" by Alice Walker

"Feed" by M.T. Anderson

"Friday Night Lights" by Buzz Bissinger