Understanding the Complexity of Book Bans in Iowa Schools

The recent use of ChatGPT by the Mason City Community School District in Iowa to remove books from its libraries has sparked controversy and raised questions about the limitations of artificial intelligence in interpreting laws. While some may view this as an attack on original work, there is a deeper issue at play that stems from vague legislation surrounding “age-appropriate” books and their portrayal of sexual content.

Iowa’s SF 496, signed into law in May, aims to protect parental rights by restricting discussions on sexuality and gender identity in schools. However, the language used in the law is broad and open to interpretation, causing confusion among educators. Bridgette Exman, assistant superintendent of the Mason City School District, explains that it is impractical to read every book and filter them based on the new requirements.

This situation highlights the challenge of applying AI like ChatGPT to interpret laws that lack nuance. When asked whether a book contains a description or depiction of a sex act, the AI may not provide a clear answer for books that fall into a gray area. For instance, the Bible contains passages that address sexual topics and relationships but generally avoids explicit descriptions of sexual acts. This ambiguity can lead to confusion and inconsistent application of the law.

Educators like Exman have resorted to using ChatGPT as a means of ensuring compliance with the law. However, they face the daunting task of making subjective judgments based on the AI’s responses. Exman acknowledges the frustration caused by this new law, especially as educators were not provided with guidance on its implementation by the Department of Education. The responsibility falls on individual educators, and failure to comply could have personal legal consequences.

While Mason City has removed 19 books from its libraries, other Iowa schools have taken more drastic measures. Exman believes that some districts may be making assumptions about the intent of the legislature, leading to the removal of books that address issues such as LGBT representation or race, which are not explicitly required by the law. These books are seen as valuable additions to school libraries and continue to be preserved.

It is crucial to recognize that ChatGPT cannot fully comprehend the cultural discourse surrounding these issues or the complexities of the debate on parental rights and education. Its purpose in this context is to assist educators like Exman in their task of navigating the law. However, it is vital to find a balance between protecting parental rights and fostering a diverse and inclusive educational environment.


Q: Has the Mason City Community School District banned books using ChatGPT?
A: Yes, the district has removed 19 books from its libraries with the help of ChatGPT.

Q: Why are books being banned in Iowa schools?
A: Iowa’s SF 496 law restricts discussions on sexuality and gender identity in schools, leading to the removal of books that may contain explicit sexual content.

Q: How does ChatGPT assist in the book removal process?
A: ChatGPT helps educators determine whether books contain descriptions or depictions of sex acts, guiding their decision to remove certain titles.

Q: Are all Iowa schools removing the same number of books?
A: No, each school district interprets the law differently, resulting in varying numbers of book removals.

Q: What kind of books are being targeted for removal?
A: The focus is primarily on books that address sexual content, but some schools may also remove books related to LGBT representation, race issues, or perceived anti-police sentiments.

Q: Is ChatGPT capable of understanding the cultural context?
A: No, ChatGPT lacks the ability to fully comprehend the cultural discourse surrounding the debate on parental rights and education. Its purpose is to assist with compliance rather than understand complex societal issues.