FOR more than a decade, a divorced mother in Dade County, Fla., has been speaking disparagingly about her former husband in front of their children. Now the Florida Supreme Court has given her a stern warning: Stop ``brainwashing'' your children to hate their father, or face possible imprisonment or loss of custody. In a 5-to-1 decision upholding a lower-court ruling, the justices decreed that the ``blind, brainwashed, bigoted belligerence of the children toward the father grew from the soil nurtured, watered, and tilled by the mother.'' Hoping to change the children's attitudes, the court has directed the mother to ``do everything in her power'' to create in her children's minds ``a loving, caring feeling toward the father.'' She must encourage phone calls, visits, and letters between the children and their father , and ``convince the children that it is [her] desire that they see their father and love their father.''
The decision raises questions about the woman's First Amendment rights. But the justices appear to be saying that if speech is free, it is also accountable. ``We must balance the mother's right of free expression against the state's ... interest in assuring the well-being of the parties' minor children,'' they wrote. They also emphasized the importance of preserving the father's ``inherent right'' to a meaningful relationship with his children.
At a time when nearly half of new marriages end in divorce, the court's ruling sends a powerful message to parents about the importance of shielding children from domestic acrimony. In some states, the growing use of mediation in divorce proceedings - hiring trained mediators to resolve family conflicts - promises to lessen the destructive fallout of anger and hurt in the wake of a divorce.
But kidnappings by noncustodial parents and the swelling ranks of parents who refuse to pay child support hint at the animosity and hate that still shadow some families. So serious is the child-support problem, for instance, that this month the National Council of State Child Support Enforcement Administrators began distributing posters nationwide depicting 23 ``most wanted'' delinquent fathers.
Child abuse is widely acknowledged as one of the nation's most serious problems. Yet parents who wouldn't think of abusing their children physically or sexually sometimes fail to see that putting them in the crossfire of marital warfare constitutes emotional abuse, with potentially devastating consequences. Those consequences can extend far beyond the walls of a home. Hate is something that grows and spreads.
If children start with hating Daddy, hatred becomes a habitual attitude, manifesting itself at ever more precocious ages. The attitudes parents instill in young children either breed a sense of trust and affection for their fellow man, or foster distrust and malice.
So-called ``hate crimes'' against ethnic and racial minorities and homosexuals have escalated in recent years, making daily headlines. Middle-class high school students have been charged with spraying graffiti on temples and stores. And in February, Douglas Hann, a junior at Brown University, became the first student to be expelled from college for violating ``hate speech'' regulations. The action stemmed from an incident last fall when Mr. Hann shouted racial, ethnic, and antihomosexual slu rs in a campus courtyard.
Earlier this month the PBS television network also aired a special entitled ``Beyond Hate.'' Hosted by Bill Moyers, the program explored the ways in which hate appears, from big-city gangs and skinheads to conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis.
This new attention being given to hate seems to suggest the distressing possibility that hate is having a kind of revival. After all the never-again books and films about the Holocaust, after the noble drama often relived of the civil-rights movement, could hatred ever be so blatant again? Yet the faces of child soldiers abroad and child gang members at home stare into the camera today, reminding adult viewers that hate - and love - start at an early age. Some baleful image like these baby warriors may have been in the mind's eye of the Florida judges when they handed down their decree.
Politicians and judges may not be able to legislate love. But as the Florida Supreme Court has shown, they can at least put a restraining order on hatred - an important first step.