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When Collins College student Sally Blake returns home at three a.m., her father Ted berates her. Although Sally is defiant at first, her father's threat to throw her out prompts her to declare that she has been with Steve McKinter, a sociology professor conducting a survey on teenage morality. Pressed by Ted, Sally goes on to say that Steve invited her to his apartment and there asked her disturbing questions about her sex life, using "dirty words." The next morning, Ted storms into Steve's office to confront him, and finds the door locked. When Ted sees exchange student Gogo Laszlo inside perched informally on the professor's desk, he assumes that he has interrupted another assignation and accuses Steve of "indoctrinating young girls into sex practices." He refuses to listen when a perplexed Steve explains that his study, which covers not only sex but topics ranging from religion to language, explores how young people frame morality in a society on the brink of nuclear destruction. Ted finally leaves after Steve calls in his fiancée, Lois Addison, to confirm that he was with her the previous night. Although Steve discounts Ted's threats, Lois, the daughter of Steve's boss, sociology dean Henry Addison, is sure that Ted will cause trouble. As Lois questions Steve about Sally, she grows suspicious and declares that he must give up either her or the study. Henry supports Steve's resolution that he cannot abandon his work, but Lois remains adamant, and leaves town in anger. Later, Steve films the college students as they cavort by the lake, while local reporter Betty Duquesne, who has received an anonymous letter in protest of Steve's study, watches them. Upon learning of her interest, Steve asks Betty to attend a party at his apartment that weekend, at which he plans to show the students his home movies, in an effort to gain their confidence. At the same time, Sally admits to her best friend, Fay Grover, that she lied about Steve, and urges her boyfriend, Marvin, to attend Steve's party with her. Meanwhile, Steve brings Betty to his home, which she finds messy, but innocuous, and an attraction grows between them. When Betty questions Fay's father Sam, a grocer and part-time magistrate, about Steve, Sam calls him "odd but innocent," then shows her photos of Fay, whom he hopes will be a movie star. Steve's party proves disastrous after the punch is surreptitiously spiked and Steve becomes intoxicated, to the dismay of Betty and his students. Betty manages to control the group and convinces them to watch Steve's home movie show, but as the footage ends, a pornographic movie suddenly appears onscreen, prompting the horrified kids to flee. Soon after, the police arrive and bring Steve before Sam, who sets a low bail and admonishes the officers to proceed cautiously. A few days later, Betty finds Steve in a bar, where he berates her for suspecting him of wrongdoing and declares that he will soon leave town. Although she is unsure of his innocence, Betty urges him stay and fight. Days later the trial begins in Sam's store, where everyone in town is present except Steve. The prurient nature of the trial has attracted national attention, and many famous reporters attend, including Walter Winchell, Earl Wilson and Sheilah Graham. At the last moment, Steve shows up, and Gogo is called as the first witness. Despite her adoration of Steve, her testimony about the survey questions and Steve's familiar relationship with his students proves damning. Henry also plans to support Steve but is forced to admit that Lois suspected him of misconduct. Finally, Sally's statement that Steve asked questions about virginity draws shocked gasps from the crowd. Sam then reads the survey, declaring the questions "strong stuff." During a break, Henry urges Steve to plead to a misdemeanor, but Steve, who has been living for years with the secret of his former alcoholism, refuses to back down. While the crowd waits for the trail to continue, Sam distributes photos of Fay to the Hollywood reporters. When the trial resumes, Sam declares that, although Steve's judgment may have been poor, the "pornographic" movie was found to contain only clothed models, and so he has done nothing illegal. Sam dismisses the case, but Steve stands to address the crowd, insisting he be allowed to defend his name. He admits that he became an alcoholic during his study of Skid Row inhabitants, which required that he drink with his subjects. Steve then describes his current study, which features many more topics than just sex. Pointing out that questions about sex are only as dirty as the mind reading them, he declares that his sourcebooks included the Bible and Shakespeare, and concludes by asking the crowd if they would prefer ignorance over knowledge. Suddenly, a shelf in the store breaks, and when Betty surveys the debris she spots film canisters bearing the same name as that on the pornographic reel. Realizing that Sam framed Steve, she confronts him in front of the crowd. Sam confesses that he also tipped off the newspaper and spiked Steve's punch, hoping to garner national attention in order to propel Fay to stardom. Raving that he will not let Fay's life be wasted, as his was, Sam breaks down, and Steve slips away in the ensuing confusion. When Betty follows, the two leave Collins together.