Censorship in Mason City
September 6, 2023
In Mason City, Iowa, books are being pulled from library shelves, pursuant to Senate File 496. This new legislation prohibits instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation to kindergarteners through grade six. Any book available to students must be “age appropriate” and without any “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.”
Angela Watercutter notes that in essence, Senate File 496 is one of the so-called “parental rights” bills that have become “popular with Republican lawmakers of late and seek to limit discussion of sexuality and gender identity in schools.” To comply with the draconian measures in Senate File 496, Mason City’s school board decided to use Artificial Intelligence, specifically ChatGPT. Screening for depictions of sex acts, ChatGPT software purportedly located 19 texts to be removed from school libraries.
Though the use of ChatGPT is particularly dystopian, Natasha Lennard cautions us to be intentional with where we place our anger. We can’t pass off the blame to AI; conservative authoritarianism is behind Senate File 496.
Bridgette Exman, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Mason City, had to assist the school district in complying with the law. She writes: “The widespread outrage that followed these decisions is both righteous and necessary. There are no winners in the game of censorship.”
To be clear: censoring books for depictions of sex acts is, by itself, unconscionable. But book bans like Mason City’s apply to entire texts, collaterally depriving students of the other critical information. For example, though Mason City wasn’t screening for mentions of race or racism, it’s notable that among the removed titles are literary classics by three of the most famous Black women authors in U.S. history: Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
We at the Woodhull Freedom Foundation know that Senate File 496 is state-sanctioned censorship, and we know that children are going to bear the brunt of its consequences. Because of Senate File 496, Mason City students will have no access to 19 texts in their school libraries. They will be deprived of their right to access free information about themselves and the world around them.