Is It Time Airlines Banned Reclining Seats Completely?

Flying should be enjoyable, that has been the expectation since the glamorous early days of aviation. But no matter how much I love travel, no matter how much I love flying, there are some things about those long flights which still manage to get on my nerves. Some things that despite my love of travel are almost certain to threaten my carefully cultivated British sense of decorum and send my blood pressure rising to the extent that a disapproving sigh or a loud tutting simply won’t do.

I am not alone either. Numerous studies, passenger rights groups statistics and surveys have been released over the past year that show airline passengers are becoming increasingly fed up with the experience of flying and the service they are getting from airlines, and this growing and increasingly belligerent number of dissatisfied passengers suggest that maybe it is about time that airlines started to listen.

The one issue that polarises passengers more than any other is the dreaded recliners. A survey conducted by Skyscanner even suggested that the majority of passengers want them banned completely, and I don’t disagree.

Reclining seats are my all time, ultimate frustration on any flight. Not just the seats themselves and the function they provide, but the selfish people who think it is their right to lean back into my space as much as they can the second they sit down.

Space on any flight is getting increasingly small as airlines continue to make smaller, narrower seats and add extra rows to maximise the amounts of passengers they can squeeze in, all in the name of trying to get more profit. The pitch (or the space between seats) has been purposely shrunk on most airlines by a good few inches over the last decade alone, and what was once considered ‘normal’ spacing between seats is now being sold as ‘premium’ extra leg room seating. This has happened to the extent that modern seating in economy class does not reflect the average height or build of most people today. I am 6”2 tall, about average for my generation, and I can only just squeeze into the space allocated to me by most airlines, but my knees are uncomfortably pressing into the back of the seat in front of me as it is when I do. This is not my fault, no one can help or have any control over how tall they are, this is the fault of the airlines who have absolutely minimised the seat pitch to the point many people physically can’t fit in.

The most important issue for me is the fact that actual physical pain and injury are often a result of the reclining seats. I have lost count of the amount of times someone has just slammed their seat back suddenly, causing me intense pain as the seat literally crushes my knees. How would they like it if I walked up to them in the street and broke a wooden chair over their knees? It is the exact same feeling! I of course would be arrested for assault, so what does that say about what recliners are doing to me?

Quite apart from the fact that it is uncomfortable at best and painful at worst, there is also the issue of personal space, specifically the absolute lack of it when some idiot reclines right into your face and pins you to your seat. I want to watch the in flight film on a flight, not your dandruff riddled head!

The usual argument that the seat has that function and it is your right to use it or that it is your space to use are absolute nonsense. The space directly in front of my face and body as I sit down is mine, not yours, and I have an absolute right to that space, not you. Or would you like me to put my nose directly up against yours and say I have a right to this space? The seat also has a TV screen and a tray which you are preventing me from using by your selfish actions, do I not have a right to use that function? Have I not paid for that function as part of my ticket price? Or does that argument not wash when used against the right to recline?

So really it is not your right to recline at all just because the seat function allows it. It is a principle built into our entire legal and justice system that the rights of the individual cannot impinge or compromise the rights or safety of others or cause them harm, and that is exactly what reclining seats are doing.

It’s not as if there aren’t common sense solutions to this that stop short of banning them completely, such as having reclining seats at the back and non reclining sections at the front of each section, or even just allowing reclining only between certain times when people could reasonably expect to sleep. But since airlines refuse to have any common sense policy on the matter and since they will never make more space available in economy class because that would involve taking out a couple of rows of seats which they can make revenue from, then maybe it is just time to ban them altogether.

I can guarantee the first airline that does will get a lot of high customer satisfaction ratings and a lot of instant customer loyalty from plenty of fed up and disgruntled – if slightly hobbled and limping – passengers.

What do you all think? Do you recline or do you wish reclining seats were banned? Let me know in the comments section below.

Related Articldes

10 Commandments Of Jetiquette. (Or How To Behave On A Flight!)

The 10 Most Annoying Things About Flying.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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40 comments on “Is It Time Airlines Banned Reclining Seats Completely?
  1. globalmouse says:

    I never recline my seat – it really doesn’t make me feel any more comfortable and I would always feel too mean to the person behind. Plus I hate it when it happens to me. My usual response is to jab my knees into the back of the chair a few times! I have been on flights where I’ve had my young child on my lap when the person in front has reclined, squashing us both. It’s so selfish…

    • Thanks Globalmouse, I wish everyone was as considerate as you. Most people aren’t. I have absolutely no problem whacking the back of the seat more than just a few times if – after being asked politely – they refuse to put the seat up! If my knees are going to feel pain I’m sure as hell not letting their spine get away scot free! Banning them completely would just solve one of the biggest customer dissatisfaction complaints airlines get, it is a no brainer!

  2. Adrian Bauk says:

    I am 6ft6 and can’t stand the reclining seats. I can barely fit the seats as it is.

    Even worse is when much shorter people are given emergency exit rows. That drives me crazy!

    I always ask people behind me if I can recline my chair, wish all people would ask before crushing my knee cap!

    • Mate you have it even worse than I do you have my sympathy! I know what you mean, I hate it when I see emergency exit seats or especially the front rows taken up by people half my height, it is well out of order! Thank you for reading and commenting.

      • Oh yes! Preaching to the choir. I see the 5’2 midget man stretching out in an exit row and I want to stab him. I’m so glad they give us plastic knives

      • Haha! So THAT’S the real reason we have crappy plastic cutlery! You are so right. Have you noticed that most people who recline, especially the more vocal ‘it’s my right’ crowd are usually midgets too! Thanks for the comment Roma. 🙂

  3. whereisshyamni says:

    I usually turn around and let the person behind know that I’m reclining my seat. Usually I just get blank looks as if I’m an idiot for telling them that!

    • At least there is some consideration there! You may not realise it whereisshayamni but your gesture is appreciated by a lot of people. Myself included. A lot of problems occur when people just slam their seat back with no appreciation of the sudden pain that crushing my kneecaps causes or the fact other people may be using the tray for some reason. Of course I would prefer you not recline at all or even have that option until the airlines see sense and increase the seat pitch, but at least your polite consideration can lead to some compromise where I can ask you to recline part way but stop at the point where it starts causing me pain or discomfort. That’s not too much to ask is it? Were all stuck in the same situation after all.

  4. GAH! People who recline as soon as they sit, and those that do not sit up during a meal service are the PITS! Seriously how can I eat my meal with your ass in my space? I vote for non reclining seats for you, me and my 6 foot 2 inch husband who never gets a good plane ride.

    • Well said! I’d take that same vote too. I think the majority of people are finally starting to come round to that way of thinking too, and not before time either! Haha. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  5. Laura says:

    I always have a look & ask first. If the person behind agrees then it definitely goes back to original position when food is served. I find the seats uncomfortable & I’m only 5’2 so it must be torture for you?!
    The exit seats generally cost more money as even economy is split into pricing zones, which is a whole other debate regarding airlines treating us like money-making cattle!

    • Thanks for the comment Laura. Yeah it’s more than torture, especially on a long flight! Those ‘premiun economy’ seats are such a con, they never used to cost more and are set at the seat pitch that economy seats used to be at (when reclining seats didnt crush knees as much!) You are absolutely right in that the airlines treat us as money making cattle and it is they who are at fault, but I definitely think until things change and they stop shrinking the space between the seats then people shouldnt be allowed to recline.

  6. Hate the reclining! Oh, this has me riled up! LOL!

  7. It’s not that I’m against reclining seats, but since people can’t be courteous enough, then they may as well ban them. The people who recline them and then continue to push them back as far as they possibly can should be throatpunched. It’s not like the reclining helps with the comfort level anyways. 🙂

  8. I too am tall, 6’3″ and its the most annoying aspect of flying when the person in front decides to recline their seat. I will actually push my knees forward to make them not able to recline their seat and make them think it doesn’t work or something because at the end of the day, they are not considering other people at all.

    If you want to recline your seats, pay the extra dollars and move to business or first class. Economy class should now allow that!

  9. Samantha says:

    These are the times when I’m glad I’m a small person and I’m ok to curl up next to the window seat. But then I have been behind people who recline the whole way the whole time and you can barely get out of your seat! That and kicking children makes me turn a bit hulky and I just want to kick them in the kidney.

    • Haha, there’s something about this issue which really brings out the Hulk in everyone!

      And if you think it’s bad when you are short, imagine being a fairly big 6″2! (which for my generation is about average height).

      Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Sharon says:

    I guess it depends on how you look at it – I consider the space in front of me where the other seat can recline as the other person’s space and only mine if they are not reclining.

    As someone who also sits with an “infant” on my lap pretty much every time I have flown (which is a lot) for the last 3.5 years, it is bloody annoying when someone reclines. My kid will end up squished into them though, so that does seem like an effective deterrant, as they have never gone down for too long.

    On longer flights, I need to recline to have any chance of sleeping. My back starts hurting if I keep it completely upright for any length of time. I do always try to minimise the time I have it back, but other than that, I don’t see why it is my responsibility to worry about the person behind me – we are all squished. I feel that I pay for the right to recline to sleep.

    • That’s where we will definitely disagree Sharon. I consider that space in front of me – that ‘box’ between my knees and my head – for lack of a better definition as my personal space. Personal space is defined in law as that space surrounding an individual that is psychologically guarded, that others should not violate. There are no specific laws for it because the space itself is subjective, but there are laws around the actions based on the results of invasion of personal space, including assault and unwanted touching. Both of which people are doing to me when they recline.

      And let me get this straight, you want people not to recline into you because you think it is selfish if you have an infant on your lap, but you don’t see it as your responsibility to worry about the person behind you? Seriously?!?!

      If you want to talk about pain and discomfort, I am just as uncomfortable upright but I have learned to sleep like that if necessary, the difference is I am not just ‘squished’, I am in actual physical pain caused by a reclining seat as it crushes my knees, so forgive me if I don’t see it as my responsibility to worry about your sleep. You may feel you have paid for the right to recline, I feel I have paid for the right to actually fit in my seat without the risk of pain and physical injury, much less discomfort.

      And if we are on the topic of getting what we paid for, I also see it as my right to use all the amenities I paid for on my seat, including the tray and the entertainment system (which I can’t use/see when someone reclines).

  11. asturiah says:

    Gosh yeah they have got to ban those! I mean come on! I’ll never get my seat down because I understand the poor guy behind me will be stuck but some people don’t get that unfortunately. SO yes: BAN IT!

    • Well said! I feel the same, I never recline either because I know how much discomfort and sometimes pain that it causes me and I won’t do that to someone else. I wish others were as considerate as you and I! Thanks for the comment.

  12. Yummy Planet says:

    I soooo agree with you. Like others who commented before, I never recline my seat for fear of causing discomfort to the people behind me. Sometimes I just feel foolish because other travellers obviously don’t care.

    • I know exactly what you mean! Some people just don’t care about anything but themselves, which is just obnoxious and selfish in my opinion, I wish I could get more people like you sitting in front of me on long flights!

  13. Stacey says:

    I live in Australia. When it takes 12-15 hours minimum to leave the country, you change your attitudes to reclining seats pretty fast.

    I don’t recline on short flights when I don’t expect to sleep because I’m just sitting there reading (or talking, or whatever) but I do recline when I’m flying overnight, as most people on the plane do. I can’t sleep upright.

    I do understand the frustration with people who recline when they don’t need to or who recline, then sit up at their laptops. This annoys me, but I think as I’m an adult I can bring it up with the person. I have had to deal with a family who pushed all their seats back the moment they sat down and when my meal arrived (they didn’t order a meal – budget airline) they refused to put their kid’s seat forward. The kid couldn’t be more than five and was bouncing off the walls, not sitting in the seat. I just remembered that when they wanted me to turn my reading light off because the kid was tired and wanted to sleep later.

    Not every person is nice or reasonable, but I don’t think we should ban seat reclining because of a few bad eggs.

    • Hi Stacey, thanks for commenting 🙂

      I’m sorry but I really disagree. I think it is precisely BECAUSE of those few bad eggs (incidentally I think it is FAR more than just the minority) that we have to ban reclining seats altogether.

      Basically since airlines refuse to implement any reasonable compromises (such as having a reclining section at the back and non reclining section at the front, or only allowing reclining during reasonable sleeping hours), they refuse to implement seat designs that would solve the situation (such as the Korean designed single pod design or seats that slide forward as they recline for example), most airline stewards and stewardesses openly ignore the issue by not doing anything and the selfish morons who only think of their own needs first will never see reason, then I think no one should have the privilege. Basically everyone plays fair, or no one does. It isn’t as if people haven’t had the time to adjust their unreasonable behaviour, they latch onto their ‘right’ to recline (which isn’t a right at all legally, morally or ethically) to excuse their behaviour instead. So it should be removed.

      And I may be from the UK and enjoy plenty of short flights, but the absolute vast majority of my flights are long haul too and my attitudes to reclining are staying the same.

      I understand your point about sleeping, but frankly I usually get the response of “if I want leg room I should pay for business or first class”. So my response to that is always if you want to lay down, it is the recliners who should pay to upgrade. I say this because frankly I can sleep upright. Is it comfortable? No. Would I prefer to sleep laying down? Of course. But I CAN do it. What I CAN’T do is deal with pain of having my legs crushed for a whole flight OR physically fit into most seats when they are fully reclined. This isn’t because I am obese, this is because airlines have shrunk the seat pitch AND the seat size so much over the last few decades that it can barely accommodate my average height of 6″2.

      As an adult I can bring the matter up with many recliners too, but as you state yourself many recliners do not have the reasonable attitudes of an adult. And THAT is why we should remove the privilege, not the right, for everyone.

  14. Larry McDowell says:

    On a Delta flight from Tokyo to Houston, I was constantly assaulted by the guy in front of me. He assaulted my knees repeatedly despite my protests that he was hurting my knees. He finally called over the stewardess and complained that I was not allowing him to recline. I told her that he was assautling my knees and that it hurt, but she insisted that he had a right to recline. I said he will never be able to fully recline because he is hitting my knees. She said I had to sit sideways so his seat can come back. I tried to tell her that I had bad knees, I was sixty-one and my legs hurt as it was. She threatened to have me arrested when we landed because I was not following her instructions. A few rows back, a through pilot overheard the conversation and vollunteered to change seats with me, being a shorter person. He was seated behind a baby, so that seat would no recline. I took the see gratefully. I suspect, had he not done that, I would have been reported as a person who should be put on the do not fly list, simply because I did not like being assaulted by the selfish, self-centered, younger ‘Me Generation’ in front of me. I laughed when I saw an episode of Pan Am later, in an age when stewardesses did everything to make sure you were confortable, instead of being Patriot Act, enforcers threatening passengers because we don’t like seatback assaults.

    • That’s awful Larry, but in my generations defence a great many of us don’t recline and hate it as much as yourself, and a great deal of recliners are older too. Selfish and inconsiderate are the same regardless of age. I do agree though, in my experience the stewardesses do very little to help in those situations. I know their hands are tied because it is in effect airline policy to allow recliners, but they could at the very least not be so beligerent about it and at least attempt a compromise. How may I ask were you to be expected to sit with your legs sideways? In the aisle? You’ll get warned for that because the stewardesses need to get past. In someone elses leg space? I’m sure they’ll be really happy about that! It is ridiculous!

      I applaud the recent efforts of airlines such as Monarch that are installing thinner seats with more leg room and more importantly are fixed, and don’t recline! The sooner ALL airlines follow suit the better!

  15. Red Hunt says:

    I’ve curiously read a few related articles on reclining seats the past few days. I have to say this is the most biased one I’ve seen.

    Seat space has become a major issue on airlines. Not wide enough, not comfortable enough, rows are too close, etc. The solution is to get airlines to realize that they are causing these tensions, not blame other travellers.

    The idea of airlines having non-reclining seats only appeases a minority. Ideally everyone wants the comfort of reclining their seats, without impacting the person behind them. To eliminate that part of the flying experience creates undue discomfort for all, not just people who are tall.

    Ten years ago barely anyone complained. Seats had more pitch, people working on laptops and using their tray tables for the entire flight were a rarity. Recliners were everywhere. Now, the way people use their flying space, and the overall space you’re given, has changed. We are more productive, work more and thus “need” more space on planes. And for those of us who are tall, it creates a double whammy. It is the airlines who need to adjust to the current demands of fliers.

    If I am ill, hungover, tired or uncomfortable, I will recline my seat. More often than not, I don’t, but it is a service I expect to be able to use. The path of movement of my seat…backwards and forwards, is part of what I own, part of what I paid for with my ticket agreement.

    Your concept of some invisible “box” from your knees up is amusing, but absurd. That space exists, and has always existed, for the seat in front of you to recline. Nothing has changed, except that seat has gotten closer to you. Because of the airline. Not because of the person sitting in it. The person sitting in front of you is not taking up anymore space than they did 5, 10, 20 years ago.

    If you’re going to take such a hard-nosed attitude towards it, because you are 6’2″ tall, then perhaps a more serious approach to onboard people sizes should be taken, just as onboard carryon bags are sized?

    If you don’t fit, you need to pay an extra fee, or don’t fly. Just like your oversize bag. is that a fair solution?

    You mention an airline (Monarch?) I’ve never heard of, that does not recline seats. There are also airlines that charge by weight of passengers, so why not charge by leg length / height? Airports can have a carryone bag measuring stand and a people measuring stand at check-in. If you sit in the sample chair and your knees touch the back of the chair in front of you, then you need to purchase a seat with more space and can not fly in a regular economy seat.

    There are policies in place to handle such requests. Take American Airlines for example, their “extra seat procedures” are for selected circumstances, including if someone is “Unable to fit into a single seat in their ticketed cabin”. This seems to be your situation. Thus, you should purchase the seat in front of you when you fly.

    Sure, that solution is also absurd, I agree. But unlike your biased arguments, it would comply with flying regulations and guarantee that everyone else around you doesn’t have to deal with your space issues.

    I fully encourage everyone to recline their seats whenever they want. With the exception of times when airlines request your seat to be in an “upright” position for takeoff, landing and meals. We’re all packed in like sardines too much already.

    • Of course it is biased, it is an opinion piece not an academic article, but no more so than your own arguments or any other article out there. That does not however mean my argument isn’t right,

      I do not disagree at all that the problem – and the final solution – lies with the airlines themselves, I have argued that fact many times. However, that does not mean that passengers themselves are wholly innocent of blame.

      Furthermore there are many issues with your argument that I take issue with. First of all non reclining seats only appeasing a minority is wrong. Numerous studies and surveys done by Skyscanner and many more show that the majority want reclining seats banned or extremely limited on all flights, this number rises to almost everyone wanting them banned when it comes to short haul flights. That is why airlines such as Singapore airline are increasing pitch and Monarch etc are banning reclining seats. The fact you have not heard of them is irrelevant. Do a Google search. The fact remains that is what they are doing. So people who have problems with reclining seats are far from a minority.

      Second, what I find absurd is your dismissal of the concept of personal space, a concept that has been well established in the fields of Psychology and Mental Health. That ‘invisible box’ IS a tangible space in the psyche of the individual, and there are countless studies that show that a violation of that space causes stress, anxiety and a host of other negative effects.

      And this is before we even get into the physical effects of crushed knees, physical pain, discomfort from being confined in a smaller space, etc.

      I do agree however that it is because of the vastly decreased seat pitch – not the act of reclining itself – that we face such vastly reduced space. However, that is irrelevant. The fact is we DO have to sit in a vastly decreased space, one that is now too small to allow for the reasonable use of reclining seats. Since most airlines are refusing to restrict or ban their use (and again don’t get me wrong they are absolutely in the wrong for doing so and should be held to account), the onus is – in the meantime – on the passenger not to be so selfish as to put their own comfort above the pain and discomfort of others. As you say, we’re all packed in like sardines already, and the MINIMAL raise in comfort levels from reclining your seat are nothing compared to the discomfort of those behind who have to suffer.

      As for the suggestion of charging extra, that is taking current regulations to absurd levels. Those who are struggling with seat pitch now are not excessively tall. I am only average height for my generation at 6″2, and height – unlike obesity – cannot be helped in any way shape or form. Charging passengers for the seat next to them if they are too obese is one thing – and a separate argument – but charging passengers for the seat in front if they cannot fit in a reclined space (when the airlines have shrunk that space) is as wrong as it is absurd. Furthermore passengers don’t have the right to lean sideways over two or three seats do they? Why should they have the right to take up two seats if one of them is behind them? (And make no mistake if the passenger behind can no longer fit into a seat because of a recliner that is exactly what they are doing!)

      So perhaps it is the recliner who should pay for extra space? If they want to recline on a flight surely it is you who should be made to stump up for business or first class? You want the extra comfort right? So pay up! All we want is to fit in our seat without being crushed!

      Furthermore, there are already ‘economy plus’ seats on many airlines now, charging extra for a) what used to be free and b ) what should be reasonably expected for any passenger. (Cattle have more space and rights than we do!) But they are not always available, and good luck to anyone who wants a front row who doesn’t have a child! As they are almost always booked up far in advance.

      I wouldn’t call just wanting to sit in a seat I have paid for without being crushed, in agony or having a selfish passenger invade my personal space ‘space issues’. I would call that a reasonable expectation.

      If recliners have no regard for others comfort, pain or safety when they declare their ‘right to recline’, they cannot then use the ‘we’re all in it together’ argument as if they are the ones who are being reasonable.

  16. Louise says:

    Yes! Just ban them. No more needs to be said!

  17. Penny says:

    Honestly I think the real problem here is the airline. The economy section is just plain uncomfortable. Period. Does that make people who want to try to be more comfortable by reclining their seats selfish morons? I don’t think so. Because I dislike name calling and assumptions. I usually recline my seat a little because it is more comfortable. But I’ve been on flights where the seats were so uncomfortable it didn’t matter what I did. One particularly painful flight the head rest was in such a weird spot it hit me in the middle of the back of my head, pushing my neck forward. Oh my god! It was agonizing. I have a lot of neck problems anyway and after that flight I was in serious pain. If reclining my seat would have helped I would have done it. (Actually now that I think about it, most of the flights I’ve been on lately the seats don’t recline much at all). On a long haul flight I like to recline my seat. It doesn’t have to go all the way back, but a little bit does seem to be more comfortable. The argument that if you want to lay back you should pay for business class or first class can be easily reversed. And as far as those seats in the exit aisles go, you have the same opportunity to snag it as the person who is actually sitting in Instead of being pissed off at our fellow passengers who are likely just as uncomfortable for various reason but mainly because the f’ing plane is just a miserable place to have to be for more than ten minutes, why not work to get some changes made with the airlines? I’ve never flown Korean air but those seats sound great. And some airlines have more legroom than others, fly them. Instead of making your fellow passengers out to be idiots. Maybe some are, but this attitude is wrong. Just my 2 cents. Oh and one more comment: the folks who are pissed off because they want to work (have to work) on their lap tops while flying, talk to your boss about buying you a seat in business class. Seriously.

    • Whilst I agree completely that the airlines are absolutely at fault here, whilst they refuse to do anything at all to resolve the problem, even introducing reasonable common sense solutions such as a non reclining section at the front of economy or enforcing a reclining time for say half the flight at night, then the onus is on the passengers. And whilst they continue with the attitude of ‘my comfort comes first or I have the right to recline’, then yes, that does make them selfish.

      As for the argument about business class, the usual response is if you want more leg room, pay more. So it doesn’t have to be reversed at all, in fact I was reversing it saying if you recliners want to recline, YOU pay for the privilege. Reclining is NOT a necessity. Being able to physically fit in your seat IS.

      I get that all seats in economy are inherently uncomfortable. I’m not exactly comfortable myself when sat upright, BUT the big difference is at least I’m not making someone elses experience even worse by selfishly reclining, when studies have shown it makes so little difference to comfort for the vast majority of people.

      Furthermore, if I thought it would get anywhere I would love to work with the airlines to sort things out. As would the vast majority of their customers who according to multiple studies want reclining seats banned. Yes there are some airlines with greater seat pitch, and they have found huge increases in customer satisfaction and loyalty, take Singapore Airlines for example. But as you well know it isn’t exactly possible to fly those airlines all the time.

      You are absolutely right in that flying economy IS miserable, so why do some passengers insist on making it even more so for the person behind them? As I said, selfish.

  18. Lisa Hudson says:

    I’m with you, reclining personally doesn’t bother me because I’m only short (so reclining doesn’t make me any more comfortable either) but I agree if people abuse the privilege and cant be civil then they should have the option taken awa from them.

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