A page from a batch of Department of Education emails released in June was almost completely redacted when it was released in response to a Freedom of Information Law request. The UFT is suing over the scope of the department's redactions.

The city teachers union wants the Department of Education to justify withholding large swaths of information in emails it released to the union earlier this year.

The UFT announced today that it is filing a lawsuit charging that the department redacted more than it should have when it fulfilled a union request for internal emails earlier this year.

The emails were the target of a May 2010 Freedom of Information Law request by the UFT. The union wanted to see the communication exchanged between top department officials and charter school supporters in late 2009 and early 2010, a period when legislators were under pressure to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state.

The department did not quickly release the emails, saying that the request was too broad when it deferred the request each month. In April, two years after first asking for the emails, the union filed suit over the delay, and shortly after that, the department started releasing the emails in sections.

The emails shed some light on the department’s internal communications and showed that then-Chancellor Joel Klein kept close tabs on legislative advocacy around charter schools. But to a significant extent, they revealed nothing.

“The latest internal Department of Education emails to come to light are mostly dark: The 228 pages released today contain large swaths of blacked-out text,” we wrote in June, when the city released hundreds of messages from December 2009. Some pages contained only a black box, with every single word redacted. Other pages showed only small portions of messages, while others showed the emails that Klein had received but obscured his answers.

The state’s Freedom of Information Law allows public entities to withhold some kinds of information when it is requested, including information about collective bargaining, details that would violate public officials’ personal privacy, and some kinds of intra-agency communications.

But the union’s lawsuit charges that many, if not all, of the department’s redactions did not fall into protected categories. At the very least, the union says, the city should be forced to produce an itemized accounting of why it blacked out each of the emails it redacted.

The redactions were particularly galling to union officials coming as they did just months after the department responded very differently to another FOIL request — for individual teachers’ ratings, filed by several news organizations. In that case, as soon as a court cleared the way for the ratings’ release, the department handed them over to the news organizations, many of which published each teacher’s name and score.

“At the Department of Education, information is rarely free, particularly when important issues are involved,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said today in a statement. “Like dozens of other organizations, from parent groups to the city’s media, the UFT has struggled to get the DOE to live up to its obligations to make public information public, and we have asked the courts to intervene.”

A spokeswoman for the city’s Corporation Council said the city had not yet received the legal papers this afternoon. But she said city lawyers are confident that the redactions are all legal.

“The Department of Education has spent a great deal of time on the UFT’s voluminous request,” said the spokeswoman, Kate Ahlers, in a statement. “DOE gathered well over ten thousand e-mails and individually reviewed each one. We believe the redactions made were entirely lawful and appropriate.”