(NEW YORK)—As book bans escalate in schools and libraries across the country, a school district in Iowa is adding a new and “deeply misguided” move to this censorious trend by relying on ChatGPT to decide which books can stay and which have to go, PEN America said today. 

“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.“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. Iowa law is already infringing dramatically on students’ freedom to read; the use of generative AI tools will only speed up that censorship. Turning to chatbots to help ban more books is a worrisome escalation in the wave of censorship sweeping America’s schools.” 

Mason City School District is another case of a school district banning books in response to new state legislation. Among the provisions of Iowa Senate File 496, signed into law in May 2023 and explained by PEN America experts here, is a requirement that schools adopt an educational program that is “age appropriate, multicultural and gender-fair” and exclude materials deemed age inappropriate for having sexual content. Mason City School District implemented this mandate by relying on ChatGPT to facilitate the identification of books for removal. 

A new report from PEN America, Speech in the Machine, warns that generative AI tools may make misjudgments based on bias and other factors built into the data sets on which they are trained. “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 said. 

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057