Iowa School District Using AI to Ban Books

As schools and libraries continue to ban books en masse across the United States, Iowa’s Mason City School District has opted to utilize ChatGPT to determine the fate of books in their collections.

“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… what ChatGPT and similar services are and aren’t capable of,” commented Liz Woolery, the digital policy lead for PEN America.

Woolery added that the district has seemingly ignored “the mounting evidence about the potential for generative AI tools to miss the nuances of context and intent when reviewing content.”

A law passed by the Iowa legislature in May 2023 mandates schools to have an “age appropriate, multicultural and gender-fair” curriculum, barring materials perceived as age-inappropriate due to their sexual content. Mason City School District’s response was to enlist ChatGPT’s aid in identifying books for removal.

PEN America’s latest report, “Speech in the Machine,” highlights the potential pitfalls of generative AI tools, including possible biases ingrained from the data they are trained on. “These tools should be utilized with care, and it’s alarming to see them used as a means of finding even more efficient ways to ban books,” Woolery cautioned.

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Jack McPherrin ([email protected]) is a managing editor of, research editor for The Heartland Institute, and a research fellow for Heartland's Socialism Research Center. He holds an MA in International Affairs from Loyola University-Chicago, and a dual BA in Economics and History from Boston College.