An Iowa school district used ChatGPT to ban Buzz Bissinger’s ‘Friday Night Lights.’ He’s not happy. – The Philadelphia Inquirer

angle right
4¢ a day for 4 months
“If you’re going to ban a book, you might as well read it,” Bissinger said.
A Northern Iowa school district has banned a bestselling book by Philadelphia author and former Inquirer reporter H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger from its library shelves. The district’s methodology? It used an AI chatbot.
The Mason City Community School District has come under fire as administrators navigate a new state law. Following other states, Iowa passed a law this year that requires books available to students to be “age appropriate” and free of “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.”
Included in the lineup of challenged books are 19 notable titles including Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream — the award-winning 1990 bestseller that was later adapted into a movie and TV series — which he says doesn’t go against the standards.
“My book depicts no sexual acts whatsoever,” Bissinger said in a phone interview Friday. “Not to mention the fact that this is a great book for high school kids — in particular, high school boys who don’t like to read anything but respond to this book. This idea that high school students can’t handle anything that’s out of the vanilla mainstream is a joke.”
Friday Night Lights follows the story of a Texas high school football team on its championship run. It weaves together a football story while also taking aim at the glorification of sports, racism, and sexism.
But what Bissinger really takes offense with isn’t just the fact that his book got banned. It’s how his book got banned.
With the school year approaching, the district’s curriculum specialist said it would be impossible to read all the books that the district owns and filter them to meet the new state requirements. Instead, as reported by Popular Science, district officials used ChatGPT to analyze their book titles.
“I don’t want to be removing any books,” Bridgette Exman, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, told The Inquirer on Friday. “We are simply trying to protect our teachers from a law that holds them personally liable for allowing access to books. They deserve better than this and certainly deserve any layer of support or guidance I can provide for them since our state Department of Education is not providing it.”
According to the Gazette, a newspaper based in Cedar Rapids. Iowa, school officials compiled a list of commonly challenged books and used artificial intelligence-powered ChatGPT to flag books based on the new law’s criteria. They would prompt the chatbot: “Does [book name] contain a description or depiction of a sex act?” If the answer was “yes,” they’d pull the book from circulation.
But ChatGPT isn’t always accurate. The free OpenAI chatbot has become popular, but also controversial as questions arise about ethics and misinformation.
In fact, some schools have banned or restricted the use of AI — including ChatGPT — because of the inaccuracies as well as risks of potential misuse, cheating, or the spreading of misinformation.
» READ MORE: Lensa is the app behind your friends’ new profile pics. Here’s what artists have to say about it.
“If you’re going to ban a book, you might as well read it,” Bissinger said. “Instead, you’re telling me that you’re too lazy to read the book. So you’re going to rely on something that we all know can be wildly inaccurate?”
Bissinger said he prompted ChatGPT himself, asking the chatbot whether his book violated Iowa’s new restrictions. It told him it didn’t. An audit by PopSci using the list of the 19 books Mason City schools banned also gave inconsistent results.
When this reporter asked ChatGPT “Does Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream depict or describe a sexual act?” the chatbot responded “No.”
“The book primarily focuses on the culture of high school football, the challenges faced by the team and the community, and the impact of sports on the town of Odessa, Texas,” ChatGPT said. “While the book does contain mature themes and discussions, it does not include explicit sexual content.”
But in screenshots reviewed by The Inquirer, ChatGPT responded “yes” to the same prompt when Mason City educators asked whether the book depicted a sexual act.
School officials said that, given their time constraints, ChatGPT was their best chance of meeting the state’s deadline. They said a school librarian reviewed the final list. Next, specialists are reading the flagged books themselves — including Friday Night Lights — ahead of school starting Wednesday.
Exman, a former English teacher, said she previously read the book but it was years ago and “for joy.”
Bissinger said schools relying on artificial intelligence to determine what books students can read sets a dangerous precedent.
“It’s all intriguing, but there’s also a lot of sloppiness with AI,” Bissinger said. “And, honestly, I don’t want my [expletive] book judged by artificial intelligence.”
Across the country, conservative groups are driving a surge of book bans. A report from PEN America said that more than 180 school districts across 37 states had banned more than 870 unique book titles last school year.
Teachers and librarians say the bans are causing confusion and additional strain on school resources.
In Pennsylvania, book bans are not as widespread as in other states. Still, the Central Bucks and Pleasant Valley School Districts have both placed books under review in the last year.
The trend leaves authors such as Bissinger concerned.
“If this catches on, if books are banned by school district after school district … then what are we left with?” he said.
Other titles that got the ax in Mason City included The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Bissinger also says it’s a little late for a ban — his book has sold two million copies since its debut. The author added that he’s received hundreds of comments and emails over the years about how his book has resonated with readers. It’s also been incorporated into some schools’ curricula.
“This book is about high school. It’s something kids can relate to. But it also contains themes that kids need to know about, including the damaging role that sports can play in society and about racism and sexism,” he said. “To have my book banned or legislated by politics and the governor is symbolic of the society that we live in.”