License Plate Ethics: Is a Hateful Message Unethical If Nobody Understands It?

Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles, following analysis worthy of the cracking of the ENIGMA code during World War II, concluded that a vanity plate reading “14CV88” was “racially offensive” and had to be pulled from the road. Prof. Eugene Volokh raises the issue of whether this violates the First Amendment (he suspects it does), but the more interesting question, at least for me, is whether there is anything unethical about displaying a message like this.

Oh! I forgot to explain to you why you too should be horribly offended at the “message!”  Hmmmm. “I 4C”—foresee?—“V88”—A reference to V-8, maybe? This is about vegetable juice? No, better start again… “I foresee”—maybe “V” is for “victory”!—“I foresee victory…88.” 88? Hey, I once read about a guy who got in the Guinness Book of Records by eating a whole car, and his record still stands. Maybe the driver with the vanity plate is in the process of beating the record by eating another car, –maybe a V8! So “14CV88” really means that he foresees a victory in his efforts to be the man who “ate” a  V8! Right? But what’s so bad about that?

Uh, no. According to the Washington Post, the DMV, with an assist from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group for American Muslims that must be looking for things to do, has figured out that “14CV88V” is a coded message in which the number 88 stands for the eighth letter of the alphabet, H, doubled to signify “Heil Hitler.” “CV,” they say, stands for “Confederate veteran,” and “14” is code for imprisoned white supremacist David Lane’s 14-word motto: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”


But of course! It’s so obvious! Why didn’t I see that? Then again, “88” could stand for a piano, which has eight-eight keys, and CV could mean “curriculum vitae.” And if the “14” references the classic history book, Kings of England, (which has fourteen characters), then “14CV88” would refer to the king whose resume, according to the historical accounts, showed that he could play a mean piano. Of coures, I have no idea which one that would be. Henry the Eighth, maybe. He was a fun guy.

If the “code” being used by the driver to express whatever strange thoughts he may have is that indecipherable, then his message is being sent only to himself and those whom he chooses to enlighten with his special de-coder ring. Such a message offends nobody, and does no harm. Ethics requires actions, conduct, and usually some actual consequences from them. A private, coded message, whether it is scrawled on a basement wall, written on a piece of paper that is promptly swallowed, or displayed on a license plate, is nothing but a thought, and we dare not declare thoughts unethical. Wonderful people have terrible thoughts; indeed, one of the purposes of ethics is to stop us from translating terrible thoughts into action.

Any message that takes weeks of analysis to be (supposedly) understood cannot possibly be read by normal people who glimpse it on the road, or even those who see it in a parking lot—because normal people don’t spend time deciphering obscure license plates. Even now, how can Virginia’s DMV be so certain that “14CV88” means what their code-masters say it does?  The key clue, says the Post, was the truck on which the plate was fastened. It featured an enormous photo of the burning World Trade Center towers with the words  “Everything I ever needed to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.” And what does that prove, exactly? Would it prove that any license plate combination displayed on such a truck had a hidden, racially-offensive meaning? Give me enough time, and I bet I could come up with an offensive coded translation for a lot of innocent license plates. How can we know, based on the photo and with absolute certainty, that the truck’s driver isn’t eating a car, celebrating V-8, or letting us know that King Henry could tickle the ivories. We can’t.

How many people who aren’t white supremacists even know who David Lane is, or how many words his quotes contain? If the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the DMV or the Washington Post have to publicize the meaning of 14CV88 so anyone other than the driver and his hood-wearing pals can comprehend it and be offended, then they are the ones committing the unethical act, by setting out to upset people. If the driver wanted to communicate his racist thoughts to the world, then he wouldn’t have put them into code, would he? These are just his thoughts, and until he does something with them, they are neither ethical nor non-ethical, right nor wrong. The government and the Department of Motor Vehicles have no business condemning his thoughts, or going out of their way to determine what his thoughts are.

Or mine. Or yours.

Meanwhile, I’m issuing a challenge to Ethics Alarms readers to come up with other plausible interpretations of  “14CV88,” innocent or otherwise. After all, “HH” could stand for Herbert Hoover, Horatio Hornblower, Hubert Humphrey, Harry Hamlin, Howard Hawks or the great Harry Hooper.

Below you’ll find some other potential 14-word quotes that might have been said by David Lane, though others uttered them first. While you’re working on “14CV88,” I’m going to figure out what my own license plate reveals about my inner-most thoughts. I’m almost afraid to check.

“In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs forever and ever.”

“I envy people who drink – at least they know what to blame everything on.”

“He said he hadn’t had a bite in three days…so I bit him!”

12 thoughts on “License Plate Ethics: Is a Hateful Message Unethical If Nobody Understands It?

  1. 14CV88V is actually a positive message about Islam. Here is how it works.
    14 indicates what letter of the alphabet to start counting from. In this case it is N, the 14th letter. From there, count 50 letters forward (C equalling 50), continuing to A when reaching Z. Doing this you will reach the letter L. Then go back to the starting letter, N, and count 5 (V) letters forward. The next letter is S.
    So the first two lettes are LS. In Linux LS lists the contents of the current directory.
    Next is 88. In ham radio 88 means hugs and kisses.
    Then comes the last letter, V. Since the truck this license plate was on mentioned Islam, we know the context of this letter. V, again 5 in Roman numerals, refers to the five pillars of Islam, the 5th pillar, Hajj, in particular.
    So the secret message is that if you are wondering where to find (what directory to look in) love (hugs and kisses), look to the five pillars of Islam, especially the Hajj.
    This was learned on 9-11 because (according to the driver of the truck) many Americans were ignorant about Islam but this has opened our eyes and allowed us to learn about Islam.

    Also, King Henry V reigned in the early 1400’s, and the piano was invented in the 1700’s. How many keys on the hurdy-gurdy?

  2. “My Goldoni 14CV tractor was repaired with the help of a Fluke 88V multi-meter.”

    Or maybe something more rational:

    Given that the Virginia colony was founded in 1607 and they ratified the constitution in 1788…
    1+6+0+7 =14
    Commonwealth of Virginia = CV
    1788 Virginia ratifies the US Constitution: 88V

    Damn. DMV just got schooled.

  3. Here I go again:

    Maybe they are all Psalm entries? Chapter’s 14, 105 (CV), 88 : Line 5 from each…

    14:5 There they are, overwhelmed with dread, for God is present in the company of the righteous.

    105:5 Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,

    88:5 I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.

  4. You’re all crazy.

    14CV88V clearly shows, reading from right to left, a vampire (the two V’s are his fangs) with capped teeth (the 8’s) chewing on tobacco (the C is his bulged cheek) and his pointy ear (the 4), and he’s just left the barbershop (the 1) where he asked Sweeney Todd for pointers.

  5. You know what? I’m just going to say that the Council of American-Islamic Relations itself is in fact a secret hate-group that pretends to be Muslims in order to try and scare Americans into worrying about an Islamo-fascist takeover.

    • Well, I assumed it meant something to somebody. The point is, those people won’t be offended by ot, and the people who will be offended by it won’t notice it.
      How did you come across it, by the way?

  6. I would have read it as dates or ages (CV is 14 and V is 88) or as interspersed arabic and roman numerals 14, 105, 88, 5.

  7. The real question is, would it have attracted your attention at all? Are we supposed to be on alert every time we see the numbers “88” or “14” now? Should we assume that baseball players with the number 14 are white supremists?

    • Personally, I wouldn’t have recognized it as a customized plate. I’m used to seeing a jumble of letters and numbers on license plates to the point that if it doesn’t make a phonetic word, I don’t even give it a second thought.

      But look at the slippery slope here. Let’s assume it’s all true. This guy created a “code” to say something. Society cracks his code. He creates a new code. Society cracks his new code. Each time society cracks his code, they ban and censor the code. The censoring gets out of control and before you know it, 7 x 2 = “the number that can not be named” or even “the number formerly known as fourteen”.

      This guy’s license plate has just gotten more attention because of the DMV than if no one had bothered to crack his code…which may not have been a correct interpretation because only he knows what he wants it to mean.

  8. I found this debate very interesting. After a little research on my own part, I found several news stories about this issue. However, they all indicate the license plate in question is “14CV88” not “14CV88V”. According to one article, the “14” does stand for the 14 word long statement you reference. The “CV” stands for Confederate Veteran. And the “88” stands for Heil Hilter. If all of that is accurate, I personally find the message behind this personalized license plate repulsive. But I agree with you – most people wouldn’t have a clue what the plate means and those who do wouldn’t be offended. Very interesting stuff.

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