It’s safe to say that banning books is a form of censorship that’s gone a step too far.
It’s also safe to say that Friday Night Lights, the 1990 bestselling book by H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger about a West Texas high school football team and the issues around them in Odessa, Texas, is a beloved cult classic. It’s spawned a movie as well as a critically acclaimed TV show.
But if you live in the Iowa town of Mason City, good luck trying to check out the book from school libraries. It’s one of the 19 books recently removed from school shelves including Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
One thing many of the books seem to have in common is that they feature strong Black characters dealing with racism and societal issues. One can undoubtedly infer why certain people would prefer that their children not read those books.
“I’m flattered to be in the same company,” Bissinger told The Gazette’s Mike Hlas. “These are great, great books.”
Iowa Senate File 496, which was passed this year, requires that all books available to students be age-appropriate and free of any descriptions or visual depictions of sexual activity. This means that school districts must carefully review all of their books to ensure that they comply with the law.
The Mason City Community School District found that it was not feasible to read every book and manually filter them for these new requirements. As a result, they are using ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence software, to help provide textual analysis of each title.
Somehow, AI decided that Friday Night Lights met the requirement for being among the 19 books banned from shelves. And needless to say, Bissinger was beside himself like the rest of us.
“This use of AI is ridiculous,” Bissinger said, “There’s no sex at all. I’ve never depicted a sex act. I don’t know what the (expletive) they’re talking about. I purposely stayed away from that.”
And even though Bissinger stayed away from depicting any sexual acts in his book, it still cannot be checked out at any school libraries in the Iowa town of Mason City. I mean, can we use some sort of common sense here? Please?
“Why don’t you read the book first and then make up your mind?” Bissinger later added. “Instead, you rely on AI? … This is what happens when you’re actually too lazy to do what you need to do.
It’s hard to imagine that out of the members that make up this school district or anyone in the superintendent’s office, that at least one person hasn’t read the book. It’s sold over $2 million copies and has been widely circulating for over 30 years. So, let’s say that Joe Schmoe in the superintendent’s office loves Friday Night Lights, it’s one of their favorite books. Are they not to step in to speak up about how this decision lacks any validity or common sense? Does AI have the final say? What is this, the magic conch shell? If that’s the case, we’re in more danger than just banning books.
“My book is being falsely depicted,” said Bissinger. “The tragedy is, this is a great book for kids. It is a great book for teenage males because they don’t like to read anything. But they devour this book, and I know because I’ve had over 30 years of emails telling me that.
“The idea that this book has been banned is totally against what our society is and should be, freedom of speech and the ability of kids to choose what they want to read. Absolutely tragic. Not just my book, but all the books they cited.”
Bissinger argues that America is a country where people have the right to choose what they read and that banning books is a violation of this right. He also believes that AI is not a reliable way to censor books, as it can be easily manipulated to censor books that are not actually harmful.
Bissinger’s concerns are valid. AI is a powerful tool that can be used for good or for bad. It is important to be careful about how we use AI and to make sure that it is not used to censor books or other forms of expression.
“Whoever determined this is a complete idiot,” he said. “And frankly, whoever determined this is a danger.
“America is a wonderful, great country. And one of the reasons it’s a wonderful, great country is that people have the right to choose. This is not Nazi Germany. This (banning books) is similar, and I hate that comparison. It is similar to the book burnings in Nazi Germany.
“Tell me the difference. Is this the society we want to become?”